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Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), current chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, has decided to retire rather than seek reelection next year, The Washington Post reported.
Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer will be at the top of Democrats’ wish list as the candidate for the seat.
Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is next in line behind Baucus to assume the top Democratic slot on the Senate Finance Committee – West Virginia Democrat John D. Rockefeller IV is ahead of Wyden, but is also retiring in 2014. Wyden, who became chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at the beginning of the 113th Congress following the retirement of former Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), has focused a large part of his career on tax issues and introduced tax reform legislation (S 727) with Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) in 2011.
Baucus is also a senior member of the Agriculture committee. Baucus was instrumental in working with former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) in getting approved the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payment (SURE) program that became popular in Montana, especially among wheat growers. He also pushed for an on-farm farmer safety net payment calculation relative to the new farm bill debate.
Baucus has long been a key player on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which he chaired in the 103rd Congress and later served as ranking member for six years after Republicans reclaimed control of the Senate. He is currently the second most senior Democrat on the panel, and chairs the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure. His retirement would allow Delaware Democrat Thomas Carper to move into the No. 2 slot.
Energy panel dominoes. While Baucus is not a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, if the Democratic Party holds on to the Senate after 2014 elections, and Wyden becomes the new Finance chairman, it would clear the way for Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu to become the top energy Democrat in the next Congress, assuming she wins reelection in 2014. Landrieu currently chairs the Small Business Committee, but has been very active on the energy panel for more than a decade. She would be far more pro-oil and gas drilling compared with some of her Democratic colleagues. Should Landrieu lose her race and Democrats keep their majority in the Senate, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) would chair Energy and Natural Resources if Wyden departs.
Baucus had nearly $5 million in the bank at the end of the first quarter but was expected to face a tough fight in his GOP-leaning home state.
He was one of the main authors of the Affordable Care Act, which goes into full effect in 2014. Baucus recently challenged Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at a hearing, warning of a "train wreck" because the Obama administration wasn’t doing enough to make sure people understand the law. The law is unpopular in Montana, where the voters easily approved a ballot initiative in November that rejected the law’s individual mandate.
A February survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found that Baucus was polling in the mid-40s and trailing both GOP Rep. Steve Daines and former Gov. Marc Racicot in general election matches. Schweitzer was effectively tied with both top-tier Republicans in the same poll, leading Daines by 3 points and following Racicot by 1 point.
Baucus is the eighth senator to announce plans to retire, joining his Finance Committee colleague Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.). With the departure of both Rockefeller and Baucus, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) would be the most senior Democrat on Finance.
Comments: Baucus' coming departure could up the odds that there may be tax reform before he departs -- by no means a certainty. As Finance chair, he will help lead the process through the Senate. In his retirement statement, Baucus made clear he wants some achievements before turning over the gavel, including "simplifying and improving the tax code." Baucus said he is "not turning out to pasture because there is important work left to do, and I intend to spend the year and a half getting it done."
In the House, Rep. Dave Camp’s (R-Mich.) chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee expires at the end of 2014.
Veteran observers say the fate of tax reform in part will be based on President Obama's commitment to helping lawmakers confront voter reaction to losing deductions and credits. Another important tax reform factor is the debt ceiling debate this summer — when lawmakers could write into a compromise a process to trigger tax reform.
Of note, Baucus helped many farmers get the estate tax changes they wanted – and is fighting any Obama effort to temper current language. He gets along very well with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), former ranking member on the Finance panel. The two frequently worked together on ag-related tax initiatives dealing with renewable fuels.
It is the trade policy area where Baucus has made several inroads, pushing China and Russia to be fairer trading partners, along with Japan relative to that country's beef import policy. Baucus also fought for, as he will likely try again, to link the granting of fast-track trade negotiating authority (called Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA) with extending funding for Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program that helps Americans impacted by job losses.