Democrats Love to Hate Baucus

Chairman Exercises Influence

Posted February 5, 2010 at 4:07pm

For nearly a decade, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus has been a source of near-constant aggravation for Democrats.

While he’s been atop arguably the most powerful committee in Congress, the Montana Democrat has been accused of being a traitor to his party, a power-hungry egocentric and a brazen political opportunist.

But to many of his colleagues’ chagrin, he may be the party’s best chance for finding the one or two Republicans they will need this year to pass legislation through the increasingly hyperpartisan chamber.

“There’s a tremendous amount of frustration in our caucus about Max Baucus and a feeling that everything is a power grab, everything is ego,” one Democratic Senator said last week. “On the other hand, in this environment, he has the opportunity to forge bipartisanship. This will be a real test of whether or not he can.”

Baucus already appears poised to claim a bipartisan victory on the Democrats’ first jobs bill this week, even if he appeared to step on other Democratic Senators to get there. But his long-standing friendship with ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), his reputation among other Republicans as an honest broker and his dogged pursuit of the bipartisan agreement may make Baucus well-suited to be the man who could deliver the accomplishments on which the rest of the party will run this year.

Though Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) had been tapped last year by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to devise a targeted bill aimed at creating jobs, Baucus just two weeks ago asked Reid for more time to try to craft and mark up his own narrower package of job-creation incentives that could garner GOP support.

That brought back too many painful memories for Democrats of the four long months last summer Baucus spent trying to craft a bipartisan deal on health care. Baucus’ effort was ultimately unsuccessful and left many Democrats feeling that the Finance chairman not only delayed consideration of the health care bill but also added to the perception that the process Democrats pursued was messy.

So when Baucus asked for more time on the jobs bill, many Democrats were less than forgiving, feeling he was muddying the waters at a crucial time when they needed to pivot to job creation quickly after losing their filibuster-proof majority — and their ability to pass a health care conference report — in last month’s Massachusetts special Senate election.

“It’s not clear if he’s being constructive or destructive,” another Democratic Senator said. “He could fuzz it up so there’s no clear, concise message there” on jobs.

Even House Members have expressed frustration with Baucus on the jobs plan. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) warned last week that the Senate’s approach to the package is “how we got in trouble with health care by letting Max Baucus control the agenda.”

But others said the forthcoming bipartisan deal on the Democrats’ first jobs bill this week would likely insulate Baucus from further criticism.

“You could put a lot of blame on Max for health care. He dragged it out for four months and didn’t get much bipartisanship,” said one former Senate Democratic aide. “But now that they absolutely need one Republican going forward, giving Max a little bit of a leash to find bipartisanship isn’t a bad idea.”

Reid had already been toying with a jobs agenda that would include several small packages intended to spur job growth, but he pressed Baucus to get a bill ready for action before the end of next week rather than giving him an unspecified amount of time to work with Republicans.

Several sources said Baucus threw what many described as a “fit” Thursday morning prior to a Democratic leadership press conference to announce the party’s jobs agenda. Though Reid on Tuesday had outlined many of the details of the package Baucus was attempting to craft with fellow Finance members Grassley and Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Baucus argued that discussing it at a partisan press conference would endanger his chances of reaching a deal. Other Democrats, such as Durbin, bristled at the suggestion, but they eventually agreed to refrain from talking about the specifics of Baucus’ bill.

One Senate Democratic aide disputed the assertion that Baucus threw a fit on Thursday.

“He was calm. He didn’t even raise his voice,” the aide said. “He made clear his displeasure at the sniping surrounding the process, and he urged the caucus to work together to try to pass something, rather than jostle for attention.”

The aide added: “This was not about jurisdiction. He had talked to a bunch of moderates, and he knew what could move.”

As of press time Friday, no deal had been announced.

But Baucus’ reaction to the way leadership was handling the jobs bill illustrated what many said is the chief complaint about Baucus.

“Oftentimes, the perception is he’s more ready to deal with members of the Republican caucus than he is with members of his own caucus,” said another senior Senate Democratic aide. “He has a tin ear when it comes to the politics of the caucus. Perhaps it’s not his job to understand the politics of the caucus, but if he did, he’d probably get a warmer feeling.”

In fact, it is Baucus’ penchant for sealing the deal with Republicans that has so often angered many in his party.

One of the first things he did as the top Democrat on Finance in 2001 was commit what many in the party believed was heresy by helping Grassley craft President George W. Bush’s $1.3 trillion tax cuts. President Barack Obama recently blamed those cuts and another round in 2003 for creating the enormous federal deficit that grew over Bush’s eight-year tenure. That decision was followed by his support of the Republicans’ Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003 — another measure Obama has criticized recently as contributing to the deficit because it was “not paid for.”

Under former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) leadership — Baucus and Daschle had a frosty relationship — Baucus often was prevented from moving measures under his panel’s jurisdiction through committee. Alternatively, Daschle would write Finance bills in his office rather than give Baucus control.

Reid, on the other hand, has often deferred to Baucus as part of his pledge to give committee chairmen more power. That dynamic and the fact that Finance’s jurisdiction overlaps with so many other committees has expanded Baucus’ influence to virtually all corners of the Democratic Conference these days.

“By the very nature of his position, he’s involved in so much he has the opportunity to ruffle more feathers than others,” said the first senior Senate Democratic aide. “Other powerful chairmen ruffle just as many feathers. They just don’t do it as often.”

Several sources said Baucus is no more a thorn in the party’s side than former Finance Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) was. They also point out that Grassley often receives similar complaints from Republicans about working with Baucus on Finance.

On health care reform, Baucus did secure the vote of one Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), in committee. And the Montana Democrat’s defenders said that had Reid simply brought the Finance package to the floor — rather than deciding to include a public insurance option favored by liberals — the election of Sen. Scott Brown (R) in Massachusetts would not have been so crippling to the health care debate. Brown gave Republicans 41 votes and the ability to filibuster.

“If you had gotten Snowe [on the floor], you wouldn’t have had to worry about Scott Brown,” the Senate Democratic aide said.

Plus, the aide said Baucus’ efforts were crucial to securing the support of centrist Democrats on the Senate-passed health care bill, because he provided at least the appearance of a bipartisan effort and produced a bill that would have reduced the deficit.

Others also sided with Baucus on the overhaul.

“On health care, he provided, in my opinion, great leadership,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who spent months negotiating as part of Baucus’ bipartisan gang of six Finance members. “We would not be where we are today if he hadn’t put out a white paper [in October 2008] and got us started down the path, and I think we got a much better bill for having gone through the effort to get bipartisan support.”

And despite the intense criticism he often gets from both rank and file and leadership, Democrats said that as long as Baucus keeps producing bipartisan deals that make Democrats look good, he will continue to escape any consequences.

“From a leadership perspective, generally it ends up being OK,” the first senior Senate Democratic aide said. “Results speak louder than anything else.”

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.