The Insiders: Democratic Senate retirements are a big deal

Sen. Max Baucus will retire

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT). (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

While everyone has been focused on recent events like the terrorist attack in Boston or the gun control debacle in Congress, the many retirements announced by Democratic Senators have gone virtually unnoticed.  But the cumulative effect of these announcements could shape critical short-term issues as well as the long-term political equation in Washington.

With today’s announcement that Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), powerful chairman of the Finance Committee will retire, a truly unique political dynamic has emerged.  Joining Baucus in looming retirement is Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the second-ranking Democrat on Finance, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  And oh by the way, President Obama won’t be running again.

At a time when Congress is (so far unsuccessfully) attempting to tackle complicated and important issues, particularly deficit reduction and entitlement and tax reform, what are we to make of the fact that three of the most influential Democrats in healthcare and tax policy are no longer facing re-election?  Unencumbered by electoral concerns, will they feel more empowered to make/drive difficult decisions that may make special interests on the left uncomfortable?  Will they prove increasingly willing to pursue truly bipartisan solutions, now that the MoveOn crowd can’t threaten their campaigns?  Or are they just lame ducks with dramatically diminishing influence among their peers, as Democrats look to the next generation of leaders?

It’s too early to answer any of these questions, but the answers will be crucially important, perhaps determining whether we solve, or at least seriously address the enormous fiscal challenges facing our country in the next 18 months.

One thing is certain, though. Sens. Baucus, Harkin and Rockefeller have been among the few Senate Democrats willing to occasionally work with Republicans on smart policy.  Baucus has been a strong defender of Medicare Part D, a stunningly successful program delivering prescription drug coverage to our seniors, at a fraction of the projected cost.  Harkin has been a leader on disability policy, and just last year shepherded an important (and bipartisan!) FDA bill through the Senate.  Sen. Rockefeller has championed policies to help children, families, and rural communities.  Unfortunately, it seems almost certain that after they’re gone, prospects for bipartisan problem-solving will continue to shrink, with a new group of leaders again beholden to liberal special interests.  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we’re going to miss them.

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