The Sleeper of the Senate: As Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus Could All but Ensure the Passage of a Progressive Social-Policy Agenda. or He Could Be Its Biggest Roadblock

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At 3:45 P.M. on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, Max Baucus, arguably the most consequential legislator in America is not preparing for his big speech. In fact, he won't be giving a speech. Nor is he holding court in one of the Pepsi Center's sumptuously appointed luxury boxes. Rather, he's a good 40-minute hike up Denver's main drag, camped out in the back room of a dank little bar called City Grille ("Good Value. American Food. Great Place."). His aides are folded into the booths, swirling the melting ice in their glasses. I'm in the bar for 10 minutes before I even know they're there.

Baucus is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Staffers like to say that the committee is responsible for all the money the government raises and half of what it spends--and that's not too far from the truth. It is the only Senate committee able to construct new funding streams, which gives it incredible authority over the country's social-policy architecture. It has control over taxes and trade, Social Security and Medicare, health reform and unemployment benefits. Even a carbon-pricing bill would probably need its sign-off. "Everyone in Congress always worries they'll end up on the Subcommittee for Acoustics and Ventilation," jokes Sen. Ron Wyden, a Finance Committee member. "The Senate Finance Committee is the opposite. It's the forum where the biggest financial decisions of our day come, and we have to figure [out] how to tackle them."

For that reason, the leadership of the Finance Committee has traditionally produced legislative giants. Russell Long. Bob Dole. Bob Packwood. Lloyd Bentsen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. These men were darlings of the Sunday talk shows. They rivaled the power of the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, and they were tapped to fill presidential tickets. Max Baucus, however, is not a giant. He is a polite man with sensible silver glasses and a gentle handshake. He is roundabout in conversation, and punctuates his points by raising his eyebrows and smiling slightly, as if pleading with you to agree with him. He has served five terms as a senator from Montana, a state with one of the smallest populations in the union. Insofar as he has any national profile at all, it's as a Democratic apostate. He partnered with Republican Chuck Grassley to craft President George W. Bush's first tax cut and angered the Democratic leadership by refusing to consult them before the bill's markup. He further infuriated his party by helping Republicans pass the Medicare prescription-drug bill even after they had locked the Democratic leadership out of conference committee. He voted for the 2005 bankruptcy bill. For his sins, The Nation has branded him "K Street's Favorite Democrat." This magazine termed him "Bad Max." The New Republic editorialized that he should be stripped of his chairmanship.

These are all facts about Baucus. But these are also facts: In 2005, when Bush seemed all but politically invincible, Harry Reid put Baucus in charge of the Democratic effort to block Social Security privatization. Baucus creamed Bush. Privatization never even came up for a vote. In July, the Senate was gridlocked over how to trim Medicare spending. Inaction would have triggered an automatic 10.6 percent pay cut to doctors and likely have caused many to stop treating Medicare patients, throwing the program into crisis. Democrats sought to slash reimbursements to private insurance companies that were charging 120 percent more per beneficiary than Medicare. The fix was blocked, in part by Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee and Baucus' good friend. So Baucus cut Grassley out of the process, taking the bill directly to the floor and setting the stage for Sen. Ted Kennedy's dramatic return to the Senate, where he cast the decisive vote.

This is the uncomfortable reality that will face the next administration. While most reformers have been obsessed with the policy details of the presidential campaign--health-care mandates or simple subsidies? …