Wyden is next in line for the top Democratic spot on the Senate Finance Committee, now that Chairman Max Baucus is retiring.
Liberals may have cheered when Montana Sen. Max Baucus announced he would retire in 2014 and give up his stranglehold on the Senate Finance Committee gavel. But the likely ascent of Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden to the top of the committee creates its own problems for Democrats.
Baucus, who has been the top Democrat on Finance for more than a decade, announced Tuesday that he would not seek re-election. Though his fiercely independent style and transgressions against party orthodoxy created a fair share of spats with Democratic leaders, Wyden’s own brand of bipartisanship is not without its detractors.
Wyden has often perturbed leadership by freelancing on bipartisan talks that have run counter to the party’s message — pursuing Medicare changes with House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin in an election year when Ryan was the No. 2 Republican on the national ticket. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney occasionally invoked Wyden to burnish Ryan’s bipartisan chops, and Wyden eventually had to distance himself from the policy paper he co-authored with Ryan offering more private insurance options to Medicare recipients, among other things.
Wyden came under fire from liberals prior to Romney name-checking him because many saw the proposal as too close to GOP plans to turn Medicare into a voucher program.
Wyden’s other major foray into health care — the Wyden-Bennett plan — also raised the ire of the Democratic base. Many believed he was stubbornly pushing an idea that had little traction during tense negotiations over the 2010 Affordable Care Act. That bill, sponsored with then-Sen. Robert F. Bennett, R-Utah, would have eliminated employer-based health care coverage under the notion that employers would increase salaries to help employees pay for insurance. It included an individual mandate similar to what was in the health care law.
Despite Wyden’s offbeat policy prescriptions, Democratic caucus rules are on his side. They dictate that the next senator in line of seniority has first right to the gavel, and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been scrupulous in adhering to that.
It’s unlikely Wyden would pass up the chance to take over the Senate’s most powerful panel, even though he currently chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Right behind Wyden in seniority for Finance is Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. Schumer aspires to one day be leader and could face internal conflict if he tries to leapfrog another senator. And yet Reid’s discomfort with Wyden will at a minimum create Capitol Hill intrigue and buzz on Wall Street about whether the leader might make an exception to the rules.