It’s been a rocky few months for Max Baucus. Few people in the upper chamber are listening to the Montana Democrat as he nears the end of his final term, according to interviews across several key Senate offices, and his colleagues have largely abandoned his most beloved project, tax reform. “There is a squeamishness about Senator Baucus doing tax reform, because of his record of giving concessions to Republicans,” one senior Democratic aide says.
Baucus, the Democrat progressives love to hate, has endured a string of indignities from his own party and its leadership in recent months. In May, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and other top Senate Democrats ignored his request to return an online-sales-tax bill—a potential vehicle for states to earn huge revenue from growing companies such as Amazon—to his committee for more review. Then, toward the end of the summer, Majority Leader Harry Reid nixed Baucus’s effort to overhaul the tax code when he refused even to participate in a Baucus-led exercise asking lawmakers to defend specific tax breaks. Worse, Reid announced his dis before a gaggle of reporters.
But the most demoralizing development might be this: Few Democrats even want Baucus to overhaul the tax system, according to aides. Such legislation would require them to take tough votes to eliminate potentially beloved tax breaks, and Baucus refuses to be pinned down about the kind of revenue the process would raise. (The Senate Democratic budget called for close to $1 trillion in new revenue.) “He has not made people feel like they’re buying into a process where lawmakers understand the outlines,” says a senior aide to a key Democrat. Like others interviewed for this story, the aide insisted on anonymity to talk freely.
Staffers and lobbyists say that isolation and distrust are now the capstones to Baucus’s three decades in the Senate. “It just leaves his career with bit of an incomplete,” says another Democratic senior aide.
It also obscures Baucus’s legislative victories, from the 1986 overhaul of the tax code, to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, to his efforts to thwart the Republican-led privatization of Social Security in the mid-2000s. In good times, Baucus has shown policy chops and an ability to compromise that his most liberal critics do not always acknowledge. “Baucus knows how to bring people together around a practical concept,” another senior aide says. “Every time he does that, [other lawmakers] get nervous about their power.”
That tension with other Democrats has been mounting over the last decade. Baucus’s original sin was voting with the Republicans to pass the Bush tax cuts and the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. More recently, he irritated his colleagues by joining only three other Democrats in opposing the party’s Senate budget blueprint, the first one Democrats produced since 2009, under the leadership of the rising star Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. (Baucus said $1 trillion in additional revenue was too much.) Then he voted against gun-control legislation in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. As a red-state Democrat, that made sense—except, weeks later, he announced his retirement from the Senate at the end of 2014. The sequence “left a bad taste in people’s mouth,” says a senior Democratic staffer.
In a written statement e-mailed to National Journal, Baucus acknowledged his history of compromise by quoting Teddy Roosevelt. “He once said, ‘It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.’ … History will recognize my dedication and hard work.” And the senator is not done yet: He’s still fighting for tax reform, even though few Democrats think the time is right for that effort.
In terms of his legacy, Baucus’s best hope now is that the Senate Finance Committee, which he chairs, will issue guidance for tax reform that can inform future negotiations. “There is a shot in 2015,” a senior Democratic aide says. “If they put out some discussion drafts or white papers this year, it could be the basis for tax reform in the future, and Max Baucus’s fingerprints will be on it.”
Baucus’s other path to brand rehab is to pivot and just blame the Republicans. The heir apparent to the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden, did that Tuesday, when he tried to pin the lack of tax-reform movement on the House. “The biggest challenge right now is that the House is talking about a top tax rate of 25 percent—and, having a decade’s-worth of involvement in this issue, I can tell you: I don’t see any way to do that,” Wyden said.
But Baucus also suffers from the way Congress runs. Power now flows through a small leadership circle; that, not the committees, is where major decisions are made. Even holding the gavel at the Finance Committee—which oversees the tax code, the Internal Revenue Service, and the debt ceiling—isn’t enough to control power anymore. “We’re just in a different era. The tea-party crowd has changed the dynamic. Historically, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee would be in the room for major decisions,” a prominent tax lobbyist says. “He’s got less juice than he did six months ago.”