Gun control. Tax policy. Social Security. Farm bills. Medicare Part D, and the Affordable Care Act. These are all major policy areas where Democratic Sen. Max Baucus has played a starring, often controversial role during his 35 years in the Senate, and the tone and tenor of some of these policy areas will be up for grabs, now that Baucus has announced his retirement.
This move not only leaves open his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, directing tax and health care policy, but it also raises questions about the way Baucus will act in the coming months now that he’s not constrained by a fierce re-election campaign and the pressures of being a Democratic politician from a small red state.
He could change his mind on gun control legislation and vote for background checks, alongside much of the Democratic caucus. The same goes for any future immigration reform legislation. He’ll still oversee the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and he’s expected to push for a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code in the coming months. The Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, Dave Camp, is also facing a deadline to act, as his committee leadership post ends with the 113thCongress.
The biggest question remains the way Baucus will use this newfound freedom to push his priorities through the Senate and force leadership to deal with him as it courts his vote. Lately, there has not been much love between Baucus and some of his Senate colleagues, especially after Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin opted to bring an online sales tax bill straight to the Senate floor and circumvent Baucus’ tax committee.
Baucus also recently trashed the Affordable Care Act, the president's signature health care law, during a recent hearing, calling the legislation a "train wreck." The White House's irritation at this remark was evident when it did not mention the role Baucus played in healthcare reform in the administration's official statement commending Baucus' tenure.
Baucus himself was not ready to make any promises about his future role after he suddenly announced his retirement on Tuesday. Instead, he attended the Democratic Senate’s weekly policy lunch with his wife, Mel, a former staffer and a lawyer with the Justice Department.
He told reporters that he felt “great, in a word,” to have made his decision and argued it would improve his ability to pass tax reform because he would not have the distraction of a campaign. “Lots more energy, absolutely,” he said. “I have a lot more time.”
The downside is that his retirement inevitably will encourage his top tax staffers to begin to look elsewhere for work and will give him less leverage to urge other members to take tough votes on important tax issues. “A lame-duck chairman means he has less to threaten other members with and less to promise that he’ll do for them,” said Stan Collender, a former Democratic aide to House and Senate Budget Committees.
The best-case scenario for tax reform in 2013 is that it gets lumped into a budget agreement to avert the debt ceiling and becomes a reality, without having to depend on the full support of the White House, Senate Democrats, or House Republican leadership. Much of the power Baucus will hold for the remainder of his term will depend on a budget compromise and its contents.
Otherwise, says one tax lobbyist, Baucus will be just another member without a serious portfolio. This says nothing about the pressure of the congressional schedule as it butts up against the 2014 mid-term elections. "They'll run out of time,” says Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. “They're going to do immigration. We're going to have to deal with the debt ceiling."
Next in line for the Finance Committee chairmanship technically is Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who is also retiring. Then comes Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore, who currently chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and who appears to want to elevate his profile with the more prestigious and lucrative Finance Committee post.
Behind him is Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who has aspirations of succeeding Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and who may want to position himself at the head of Finance to boost his leadership credentials. Schumer’s representation of New York and Wall Street—with its tax goodies, such as the carried interest provision for hedge funds—could make him an interesting leader.
Baucus’ retirement also shakes up the landscape of the broader Senate Democratic caucus. The Montana senator’s moderate stance made him a friend to many Republicans and just as often an outsider and enemy to the Democrats, especially over the last 10 years.
He broke ranks with his party to vote for the 2001 Bush tax cuts and the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit. More recently, he voted against the Senate Democrats’ budget blueprint and gun control legislation.
Even in the hours before he announced his retirement, Baucus clashed with Senate Democratic leadership about his opposition of the online sales tax legislation. The reaction of handful of liberal groups to his retirement just highlighted the disdain that many Democrats still feel for him.
"Good bye, Senator K Street. Max Baucus has a history of voting with corporate interests and not the interests of Montana voters -- taking millions from Wall Street, insurance companies, and lobbyists,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in a statement.
On Tuesday, Baucus’ staff was quick to send out a list of his accomplishments, which spanned a Senate tenure that started in 1978. In addition to being one of the few members who witnessed the 1986 tax reform bill, Baucus also helped to pass six farm bills, three highway bills and the Affordable Care Act, his office said. He also was one of the chief sponsors of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990.
For Democrats with long memories, Baucus’s chief achievement may be the way he blocked President George W. Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security. “He was smart enough to realize that what they were trying to do fundamentally was try to gut one of the key programs of the New Deal, which was very important to millions of Americans. He took on the fight and he won,” said Jim Manley, a former senior aide to Reid and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Chris Frates and Rebecca Kaplan contributed contributed to this article.