Sen. Max Baucus of Montana – chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee – will retire instead of running for a seventh term in 2014, msnbc.com confirmed on Tuesday.
The lawmaker was first elected in 1978 and played a crucial role in the early stages of President Obama’s healthcare reform in 2009, leading the first Senate discussions, hearings, and negotiations. Baucus–one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate – is also a polaraizing figure, most recently outraging many in his party for voting against an amendment to strengthen background checks on guns.
“Say what you will about the national gun debate, but Max Baucus doesn’t abandon his principles,” said Brian Pomper who has known Baucus for over ten years and served as his Trade Counsel on Senate Finance Committee. “Baucus felt the majority of his constituents are opposed to the bill and he voted that way, clearly without political calculous,” Pomper said.
Baucus is Montana’s longest serving senator and has been heavily involved in several initiatives from economic development, to clean water restoration to the Afforadable Care Act.
“Serving the people of Montana has been the greatest honor and privilege of my life. Over the past 35 years, I have been lucky to go from working for just under 800,000 of the world’s best bosses to more than a million - and I am grateful to each and every one of them for the opportunity they have given me.” Baucus said in a statement.
While there’s likely to be plenty of speculation over the next few days why the 71-year-old lawmaker is stepping down, several who know Baucus insist his decision is personal and not political.
“I truly thought he would work in the Senate until his last dying breath,” said Pomper. “But he made this decision for truly human reasons. He has worked tirelessly for over 40 years in the Senate, hasn’t been a private citizen since his early 30’s, he is past the age of retirement, newly married, and is the happiest that I have ever seen him,” said Pomper.
As of March 31, Baucus had nearly $5 million in his political war chest – a staggering amount in a state where money can go a long way. There had been little in the way of potential GOP opposition to Baucus (afterall, he’s a six term incumbent).
“This will be filled with spin in the coming days, but Max Baucus is nothing if not a fierce competitor,” said Pomper. “Not only do I think he would have won, but I know Max Baucus believes he would have won. It wouldn’t be rational to think otherwise,” he said.
Forgoing a costly and bruising re-election battle affords Baucus the time and energy to focus on capping his hefty legislative legacy with the last of his public policy goals before departing the chamber: tax reform. He’s been one of the leading voices in the Senate championing reform of the U.S. tax code and began holding closed-door meetings to discuss the issue last month with Finance Committee staff. Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski and Republican Sen. Bob Packwood, were the last committee chairmen to orchestrate the last tax overhaul, in 1986.
“At a national level, I will continue to work on simplifying and improving the tax code, tackling the nation’s debt, pushing important job-creating trade agreements through the Senate, and implementing and expanding affordable health care for more Americans,” Baucus said.
Chairman Baucus found a partner in Rep. David Camp (R-MI), his counterpart on the House tax writing committee, the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
“Max is a true legislator and friend for whom I have great respect, and I look forward to continuing our work to fix the tax code and protect and preserve our entitlement programs for current and future beneficiaries,” Camp said in a statement.
The two developed the foundation for partnership working together to push the White House to get Free Trade Agreements up to Capitol Hill for passage. They also served together on the Super Committee in 2011. Additionally, the two of them are the first Chairmen in over 70 years to hold joint hearings on tax issues which have layed the groundwork for moving forward on a comprehensive overhaul on the tax code.
“Baucus truly loves and respects Dave Camp as a friend, colleague, and partner and he can focus on the capstone of his career, tax reform, without the rigors and distraction of a campaign,” Pomper said. “This is his moment and now his hands are free to focus on good policy for the state of Montana and for the country.”
Both Baucus and Camp agree that our tax code is not working and comprehensive reform is a critical component to growing the economy, jobs, and increasing the amount of money in the pocket of average Americans.
“His decision to retire represents a green-light to go and go ahead hard on tax reform,” said one senior GOP aide. “It takes a layer of pressure of any competing interests that he may have thought he had to deal with,” the aide said.
The state’s popular, former two-term governor, Brian Schweitzer, has expressed interest in running for Baucus’ seat. If Schweitzer, a Democrat, declines to run, it increases the chances of a potential GOP takeover of the Senate in 2014. Baucus is the sixth Senate Democrat to announce his retirement, significantly complicating the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s efforts to hold on to the upper chamber this cycle.
“I don’t think Schweitzer will run,” said one Democratic strategist with deep ties to the Treasure State. “His priorities are just completely different and I just can’t picture him doing it.” “This was never a decision about Brian Schweitzer or any other potential challenger.”
But DSCC Chairman Guy Cecil has pulled off upsets in the past and recruiting the popular former governor would help Democrats’ chances of keeping the majority.
One Democrat familiar with Schweitzer’s thinking confirms that the former governor is “absolutely considering the race” but gave no sense of timing.
“Timing is not urgent and it’s still very early,” the source said
Those writing the political obituary of Democrats losing the majority in 2014 may want to think twice, as many analysts and prognosticators predicted a similar fate for Cecil’s recruiting and incumbent retention operation in the early stages of the 2012 cycle as well.
“The most important takeaway is that Baucus’s decision does not change the map and the GOP bench is extremely weak,” the source said. “We might even have a better shot winning with Schweitzer,” he said.