Legislator's legacy: Retiring Sen. Max Baucus spent 39-year career tackling problems facing Montanans and the nation

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Baucus goes on a campaign walk across Montana in 1976. (Associated Press)

As Max Baucus departs Congress after 39 years, none would disagree that the new ambassador to China has left an indelible mark on the state and the nation, on everything from health care to highway funds to tax policy.

He was chief architect of the controversial Affordable Care Act in 2010 — “Obamacare” — and the leading Democrat who said “yes” to the 2001 Bush tax cuts.

He led the Democrats’ 2005 effort to kill President George W. Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security, but sided with Bush and Republicans in helping push through the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill that relied on private insurers.

He brought billions of dollars of highway money to Montana and rural America and pushed hard and long for more “free trade” agreements around the globe, often to the chagrin of his organized-labor supporters.

The shadow of Baucus’ influence is undeniably long. But in Montana and Washington, D.C., the take on Baucus can be ambivalent, as friends and foes alike say he usually resisted being placed in an ideological pigeon-hole.

Critics from within his own Democratic Party say he often turned his back on a more progressive agenda for political expediency, choosing a course that benefited corporate interests, the wealthy and his own re-election.

Republican foes say he was someone they could work with, but that he was a reliably liberal vote on most issues until getting ready for re-election, when he would turn more conservative.

Yet those who knew him best say Baucus was a senator who worked the legislative trenches to tackle problems he saw facing Montana, rural America and the nation — regardless of the politics.

“He’s not driven by ideology; he’s driven by his desire to solve problems that he sees in the legislative process,” says John Flink, who served as Baucus’ press secretary from 1979-1986. “Whether it’s tax bills, health care, trade, budget bills — he has, over the years, been in the middle of working out those compromise bills, because that’s what he’s always been good at, is being a legislator.”

David Parker, political science professor at Montana State University, calls Baucus one of the last conservative “Blue Dog Democrats,” whose seniority and middle-of-the-road politics often made him a player on major issues.

“He is a person who navigates the terrain between the two parties,” Parker says. “People like him are disappearing, going by the wayside ... This (current) generation doesn’t appreciate the need to pull together and find the common ground. Max did. He was powerful because of it.”

Baucus, 72, leaves the Senate this week to become U.S. ambassador to China. A Stanford University-educated lawyer from a prominent Helena ranching family, Baucus spent two terms as Montana’s western district congressman before winning election to the Senate in 1978. He was re-elected five times.

He departs as the third-longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate and spent the last dozen years as either chairman or ranking minority member on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, through which tax, trade and health and key budget policy must pass.

Shortly after he became chair of Senate Finance for the first time, in 2001, Baucus broke with most Democrats to support the $1.4 trillion, 10-year tax cut proposed by the new Republican president, George W. Bush.

More than a decade later, Baucus’ position still rankles liberals in the Democratic Party, as they say the massive income-tax cut tilted heavily toward the wealthy, erased a budget surplus and helped create the deficits that dominate budget discussions today.

“One percent of the population (in America) basically controls 50 percent of the money,” says Ken Toole, a former state senator from Helena and president of the Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. “The Bush tax cuts were a major part of that movement. Max’s support of that policy has made that problem of wealth distribution worse.”

Baucus’ vote on the initial tax cut won praise from business groups and others who felt it helped the economy and lowered top rates that were too high.

“He took a lot of heat from his party, (but) he took a lot of accolades from us, because we did think it was the right thing to do,” says Webb Brown, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce. “It was at a time when it was important to make some changes to reinvigorate the economy.”

Four years later, however, Baucus became a definite thorn in President Bush’s side.

Flush from re-election in 2004, Bush proposed sweeping changes to Social Security in early 2005, to create private accounts where citizens would choose how to invest the funds.

Democratic Senate leaders assigned Baucus the task of killing the proposal, and his chief of staff, Jim Messina — later a top aide to President Barack Obama — led the campaign that drove a stake through the heart of the Bush Social Security plan.

Of course, Baucus also is known as the author of “Obamacare,” the 2010 health-reform bill attempting to expand health coverage to millions of the uninsured, but which so far has succeeded mostly in dividing Congress and the country on the issue.

But Baucus is no Johnny-come-lately to health policy, especially rural health care.

In the late 1990s, he led the charge for creating regulations for “critical access hospitals,” allowing small, rural hospitals to get Medicaid and Medicare funds they needed to survive. The rules were based on a pilot project by the Montana Hospital Association involving three hospitals; now, there are 1,300 critical-access hospitals across rural America.

“There would not be (health care) services for many Montana communities were it not for the critical access hospital program,” says Flink, now an executive with MHA, formerly the hospital association.

Baucus also played a key role in passing the 2003 Medicare prescription drug coverage program, which uses private insurers to provide the benefit.

Democratic leaders in Congress wanted to cut out insurers and force the pharmaceutical industry to negotiate on prices, but Baucus sided with Republicans on those issues, to help get the measure through Congress.

Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a frequent critic of U.S. drug companies, says the deal is characteristic of many tax and health bills championed by Baucus over the years, including Obamacare, that favored powerful industries.

“We pay twice as much for medicine as everyone else (in the world),” he says. “The pharmaceutical companies were great supporters of the Affordable Care Act because it didn’t challenge that notion.

“If you’re an insurance company or a pharmaceutical company, the ACA has probably been pretty good to you.”

Baucus, in an interview last week, said he remains convinced that the ACA eventually will be accepted as good, badly needed reform of a health-coverage and health-care system that leaves many Americans without affordable coverage.

From the Republican side of the aisle, Baucus is seen as someone who, at times, would go against his own party on key issues.

Former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who served 12 years alongside Baucus in Montana’s delegation and came the closest of anyone to beating him in an election, in 1996, notes that Baucus promoted free-trade agreements when some of his key supporters, such as organized labor, were dead-set against it.

“He didn’t take a hard line on it like his constituency wanted,” Rehberg says. “He supported ‘fast-track’ (trade authority) to best of ability, increasing the opportunity for international trade. ...

“I think he’ll do a great job as ambassador to China. ... He’s done a great job promoting trade authority.”

Yet Rehberg also says the Baucus would vote more with business interests in the two years before his re-election efforts, and after winning re-election, “he voted more like he had before.”

Baucus also will be remembered for the stir he created in the early 1990s, when he voted twice with gun-control advocates, for the 1993 “Brady bill” that required federal background checks on gun purchases and the 1994 ban on assault-style firearms.

Orange “Ban Baucus” signs from gun-rights groups sprouted up across the state, and Baucus faced his toughest re-election fight in 1996, defeating Rehberg by just five percentage points.

Baucus voted 10 years later not to renew the ban on assault weapons and won endorsements of the National Rifle Association in 2008 and an “A-plus” grade from the group.

Still, Gary Marbut of Missoula, outspoken gun-rights advocate president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, says he considered Baucus “not reliable” on gun issues. Rehberg also noted that Baucus has voted for U.S. Supreme Court nominees seen as not sympathetic to gun rights.

At the end of the day, however, Baucus supporters and allies say his career is one of doing what he thought Montanans wanted and what was politically possible to address a problem — and, in some cases, beyond what many thought was possible, to benefit Montana directly.

Doug Mitchell, Baucus’ state chief of staff in the late 1990s, says Baucus’ crafting of highway bills that gave Montana $2 in federal funds for every $1 that Montanans pay in fuel taxes is “nothing short of a legislative miracle.”

“It was really unthinkable that he could do that, and he did it not once, but two or three times,” Mitchell says. “He looked at ... the delivery of things to Montanans that made their lives better.”

Baucus also has fashioned a reputation as one who not only does the job without much fanfare, but who does the job, relentlessly — whether it’s passing major legislation, cruising to re-election, or helping build up the state Democratic Party.

“The guy just never gives up,” says Baucus’ fellow Democratic U.S. senator from Montana, Jon Tester. “He gets a hold of something and he just never gives up. And he’s a pretty smart guy, too. You combine those two things, and it makes it very difficult to beat people like that, whether it’s an election or over policy. ...

“Montana is going to miss Max. ... I think he’ll be a great ambassador, but, on the other side, I think it’s the Senate’s loss and Montana’s loss.”

 

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Sen. Max Baucus serves muffins to students Morgan Guffin, 5, and Sarah Espinoza, 4, Tuesday afternoon during snack time at Discovery Developmental Center in Kalispell.

 

Sen. Max Baucus works with crews under Highway 93 north of Kalispell. Baucus spent eight hours on the job doing tasks from shoveling dirt to operating a truck.

 

Sen. Max Baucus guides wood into the board edger at Plum Creek's Evergreen sawmill. This was Baucus' 94th "work day" in Montana. May 1, 2013 in Kalispell.

 

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus smiles during his 96th “work day” in Montana on Aug. 8, 2013, in the North Fork area.

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