THE BLOG
11/17/2006 12:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Baucus On Hot Seat - A Roadblock or A Team Player?

As we prepare to welcome in the new Congress, we must look at where the major pressure points are going to be so that we can all prepare for battle, both during the Congress and during the 2008 congressional elections. After a cursory glance at Washington's new political topography, it's clear few Senators will be on a hotter seat in the new majority than Montana's Max Baucus. He will chair the Senate Finance Committee while also running for reelection, potentially against Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg. Because Baucus's committee is so important, the question that will decide much of what happens in Congress is simple: will Baucus follow the populist trend emerging in his state and throughout the country, or will he listen to corporate lobbyists and insulated Washington "strategists" and staffers who tell him to tack to the so-called "right" (read: sell out)? Already, we can see at least four key issues where Baucus will be most pivotal.

TRADE

As Public Citizen has reported, opposition to lobbyist-written trade deals was a big reason why so many Democratic candidates won traditionally Republican states and districts. Lawmakers already seem to understand this, as the lame-duck Congress immediately voted down the Vietnam Free Trade Agreement right when they got back to Washington this week (Baucus, by the way, issued a press release angrily denouncing Congress's rejection of the Vietnam pact). Other trade deals free of labor, human rights and environmental provisions are expected to be sent to the new Democratic Congress by President Bush, as is a bill reauthorizing "fast track" (aka. presidential authority to negotiate trade deals with almost no input from Congress). These deals will come through Baucus's Finance Committee, meaning he will be in a position to either make the election's mandate a reality, or use his position representing one of the poorest states in the country to go to bat for fat cats on K Street.

Baucus's position on trade is the focus of a big story in CongressDaily today. The newsletter says that Baucus heading the Finance Committee "offers a thin ray of hope to Bush administration trade officials and their business allies" when it comes to passing these atrocious trade deals. Here's more from the story:

"Baucus, who worked with President Bush in his first term to enact trade negotiating authority and has supported many of his trade initiatives since, is considered a closer ally of the president on trade than most Republicans...'Baucus has always had a balanced approach on trade issues. His taking over the Senate Finance chairmanship is encouraging to the business community,' said Nicole Venable, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce trade lobbyist...Off the Senate floor late Thursday, Baucus avowed that renewing presidential trade negotiating authority was 'very, very important.'...Baucus is up for re-election in 2008 and might face a challenge from Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont. Rehberg also opposed CAFTA and, if he runs, might tack to the left of Baucus on trade."

Fortunately, the story does note that "Republican sources said they have been worried by Baucus' opposition to the Central America Free Trade Agreement and criticism of the administration's position on labor during debate on the Oman trade agreement, which Baucus ultimately supported." Additionally, Baucus "left himself maximum room to reject a [fast-track] bill that does not incorporate Democratic demands on labor or other issues."

Remember, though - it was Baucus who headed to India last year to parrot Tom Friedman and trumpet how wonderful the outsourcing of American jobs has been. But also remember that the other major Democratic players in Montana - Sen.-elect Jon Tester and Gov. Brian Schweitzer - are both strongly opposed to the "free" trade fundamentalism that has dominated Washington and decimated the heartland. Unlike the last two decades where Baucus has been able to operate on trade in a vacuum, his moves on the issue now will be measured up at home to those of other major political leaders, meaning a big potential embarrassment factor for him, and also the possibility that someone like Rehberg will use other Democratic leaders here in Montana as a way to bludgeon Baucus on the issue in a campaign setting.

ENERGY PRICE GOUGING

Democrats spent much of the 2006 campaign talking about how the energy industry has ripped off consumers with outrageously high gas prices. And though prices has dropped somewhat, they can bounce up again at anytime. Democrats efforts to highlight this issue were so humiliating to the oil industry-backed GOP, that they were forced this past year to pass a bill through the House permitting large fines and jail time for energy price gougers.

But as the Associated Press today notes, "the Senate has not acted on the bill and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the incoming Finance Committee chairman, said Thursday, 'There's a lot more that has a higher priority.'"
By this comment alone, we can't really tell where Baucus is going to be on this issue. Perhaps there are higher priorities in his mind. Then again, maybe he's saying this just to give himself an excuse not to pass anything at all.

What we do know is that the oil and gas industry is one of Baucus's top contributors. But we also know that being against fighting energy price gouging is not exactly something someone wants to come home and campaign on in a tough Senate race.

PRESCRIPTION DRUG PRICES

Some history here first: Baucus, along with John Breaux (now a health industry lobbyist), was one of two key Democratic Senators helping President Bush pass the atrocious Medicare Part D bill. He has voted against subsequent efforts to fix many of the bill's worst provisions. For instance, he voted against legislation to close the "donut hole" whereby seniors get cut off from drug coverage. He also cast the deciding vote against legislation to rescind the bill's language preventing the government from negotiating lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

It is this latter issue - negotiating lower prices - that was one of Democrats' most widely publicized issues in the 2006 election. Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for instance, has said that in the first 100 hours of the new Congress, she will introduce a bill to let the government negotiate lower prices. By virtue of his chairmanship in the new Congress, Baucus will be one of the people who decides whether these legislative proposals become law. So where is Baucus on the issue now? It's hard to say.

Here was the New York Times on 11/13/06, providing hope that Baucus will be a team player and, more importantly, do the right thing:

"One potential obstacle to swift action is that some lawmakers, including Democrats, may want to hold hearings. Senator Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat poised to become chairman of the Finance Committee, voted in March against a proposal authorizing Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Aides said that he wanted to give the program more time to work, but that he was willing to consider such proposals."

But then here was well-respected health industry newsletter "Inside Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on 11/16/06:

"Long before it ever reaches the oval office -- if in fact it ever does -- a key plank in the Democratic leadership platform for 2007 that would allow the HHS secretary to negotiate Medicare prescription drug prices may run into a roadblock in the form of Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT). Baucus, who was tapped Tuesday to chair the Finance Committee, voted against an amendment last November that would have scrapped the prohibition on those negotiations -- a stance he still holds. In the wake of Tuesday's elections -- giving Democrats control of the House and the Senate -- Baucus' consistent aloofness on the Part D drug negotiation issue may now be more worrisome for Democrats who have consistently tried to pound Republicans on the issue during campaign stump speeches around the country.' With regard to negotiation, Sen. Baucus would like to allow more time for the benefit to work as designed before it should be changed. He will continue to look at all negotiation proposals as they are made," a Senate aide told Inside CMS on Election Day....A report released Oct. 26 by Rep Henry Waxman (D-CA) concluded that price negotiations could save seniors more than $60 billion in a decade, enough to plug the entire donut hole."

Translation: it's not clear yet whether Baucus is going to side with the drug industry or with Montana seniors. My bet is that at the end of the day with some pressure, he'll do the right thing...but people's nervousness on this issue about Baucus is definitely justified.

SOCIAL SECURITY

Baucus was pivotal in stopping President Bush's Social Security privatization plan. And he is promising to be just as opposed to any such privatization push in the new Congress. Here's the Associated Press today:

"The incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said Thursday he wants to hold hearings on looming insolvencies in the Medicare and Social Security programs but said President Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security is dead. 'Don't waste our time,' said Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. 'It's off the table.'"

'Nuff said - we've got nothing to worry about here, as Baucus has been rock-solid on this issue.

* * * *

For years, the grassroots in Montana has felt compelled to keep quiet about Baucus no matter what he has done on any issue. But things are different now. The successful Schweitzer 2004 and Tester 2006 campaigns have people in a proactive mood, meaning they are ready to strongly support Baucus if he's serious about working-class issues, and ready to voice opposition if he becomes Senator K Street in the new Congress.

That latter point is especially true considering the infamous/hilarious behavior of some of Baucus's top staffers here in the state. Some of them do a laughable we-own-the-place routine more suited to a bad Joe Pesci parody on Saturday Night Live than the real world. But as funny as it is and as much of a source of endless entertainment it has been to the people in Montana his staff deals with, it has definitely bred some intense resentment in state, which ultimately has been a disservice to the Senator himself.

Baucus is, if nothing else, a smart politician who can see the writing on the wall. He knows he potentially has a right-wing version of a Lou Dobbs'-style populist on his hands in Rehberg's possible senate candidacy. He also knows he hasn't had a serious primary or general election challenge in years, and that he'd like to avoid both, if at all possible. His road to his reelection runs straight through populist progressive politics. The question is whether he can muster an independence from Washington that would allow him to pursue that road? I'm sure hoping he can, and if he does, I'll be the out there cheering him on all the way. Stay tuned - it should be an interesting ride.