Democrats Are Done With Max Baucus

After years of resentment over his compromises with Republicans and defections on key votes during the Bush administration, they’re not humoring him anymore.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 22: U.S. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) boards an elevator after voting on a series of amendments to the Senate's budget legislation at the U.S. Captiol March 22, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate is debating federal budget legislation, the first time it has put forward a budget in four years. 
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Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
Sept. 26, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

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.”

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