Senators arrived in a Finance Committee conference room to find crystal bowls filled with green and white M&Ms imprinted with pictures of President Ronald Reagan, as well as Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski and Republican Sen. Bob Packwood, the committee chairmen who engineered the last tax overhaul, in 1986.
They found a detailed schedule of 10 more meetings, where committee staff members will present option papers for achieving such popular goals as simpler filing rules.
And they found Baucus in emphatic agreement with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), the ranking Republican on the panel, according to notes taken by a Democratic aide in attendance, that the committee should aim to produce a tax-reform plan by August, when Congress will once again need a face-saving deal to justify raising the legal limit on the $16.8 trillion in federal debt.
The move throws Baucus, a conservative maverick who often infuriates Democratic leaders, into uneasy contention with his more liberal colleagues to shape the next phase of the federal budget battle. With Republicans and Democrats advocating vastly different plans for getting the nation’s debt under control — and the White House due this week to offer a proposal — Baucus argues that his committee is best positioned to forge a bipartisan compromise and avoid another economy-shattering showdown.
Liberals still fuming over Baucus’s 2009 performance as point man on Obama’s health-care package fear that means conspiring with Republicans to promote legislation that would not raise significant new revenue from wealthy households, Democrats’ chief tax goal.
“He makes me nervous,” said Jared Bernstein of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who served for two years as chief economist to Vice President Biden. “I worry about his commitment to get the revenues we need.”
The campaign for tax reform comes as Baucus is gearing up to seek a seventh term representing Montana, a state Obama lost last year by more than 13 points. A recent poll found Baucus’s approval rating at an anemic 45 percent, and liberals worry that the timing will make him even less inclined to toe the Democratic line on taxes.
The senator has done little to allay such concerns. Last month, he was one of only four Democrats who voted against the Senate budget, telling reporters that its “$1 trillion in tax increases is too much.” He meets regularly with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who said Baucus shares his vision for legislation that eliminates loopholes and lowers rates without producing more revenue.