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.
Few people would comment on the record about the Finance Committee’s future or speculate openly on Schumer’s next move, but the chatter about Schumer is largely wishful thinking by Wall Street lobbyists. Wyden deflected questions Tuesday about his future.
“The Senate will be a very different place” without Baucus, Wyden said. “My bottom line is the country is expecting the Finance Committee in the next two years to focus on the country’s priorities, including improving the fiscal picture, fixing this broken, dysfunctional mess of a tax code, dealing with what is demographic tsunami with huge implications for Medicare. So what I’m going to be focusing on are those issues. ... I’m just going to leave it at that.”
Wyden has often clashed with Baucus, who did quite a bit of clashing with other Democrats himself. In the week leading up to his announcement, Baucus bucked President Barack Obama and Democratic leadership on a background check vote and called their signature health care law “a train wreck” to implement. In his statement on Baucus’ retirement, Obama did not mention health care.
Of course, many Democrats blame Baucus for dragging out bipartisan negotiations on health care and then failing, after five months, to produce a compromise bill.
Baucus said he viewed his retirement as an opportunity to do the massive tax code rewrite that has eluded him for years, yet the bad blood between him and the White House and leadership makes that prospect seem dim.
According to sources in both parties, Baucus’ pull, especially with Reid, has declined significantly in the months since the departure of two of his top aides, Russ Sullivan and Jon Selib. Aides who worked with Baucus staff regularly noted that the longtime aides were smart, dynamic and trusted even outside “Baucusworld.” Even when Baucus irked other senators personally, his team was able to compensate. These same sources noted that Baucus’ new top team has not gotten a lot of time in trying to rebuild the credibility when other staff departed.
The strain between Baucus and leaders did not go unnoticed by colleagues.
The top-ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, said he thinks the panel has been prevented from doing its work by Democratic leadership.
“I can’t speak for Sen. Baucus, but the Finance Committee has not been treated as it should be treated,” Hatch said. “We are going to put a stop to that.”
Asked what action the panel could take, Hatch said, “There are lots of ways. It may not happen overnight, but there are lots of ways. Don’t ever think that committee isn’t powerful. It’s still very, very powerful.”
Some sources argue that the way for the panel to be more powerful would be for Democrats to force Wyden to stay at Energy and to elevate Schumer. They point to the evolution of the Senate Budget Committee, which changed hands this Congress from the retired Kent Conrad to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Conrad often veered from leadership’s path in pursuit of a grand budget deal with Republicans, leading Reid to block attempts at a Senate budget for three years. Murray and Schumer are Reid confidants, while Baucus and Wyden are in the Conrad category, sources say.