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Baucus: Congress ‘too timid’ to reach debt deal

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After 10 weeks of haggling with Democrats and Republicans on the special deficit-reduction panel, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) reached the end of his rope.

Normally stoic and analytical, Baucus grew angry and emotional Thursday as he told Democrats on the “supercommittee” about the courage of his nephew Phillip E. Baucus, a Marine corporal who was killed in Iraq in July 2006.

That courage, he said, is nowhere to be found in Washington when it comes to solving the government’s fiscal quagmire. And now, with a deadline for a plan just a few days away, the 12 lawmakers on the panel are squandering the best opportunity that any committee has been given to deal with the more than $15 trillion in debt accumulated by Uncle Sam, he added.

“I lost a nephew in Iraq; 4,000 men and women lost their lives in the service to their country, and yet a majority of Congress are not willing to put their jobs on the line to reach an agreement,” Baucus said in an interview Thursday afternoon, recounting his comments earlier in the day. “They’re too afraid of losing their jobs, they’re too timid, the majority of them.

“Compared with the thousands who have given their lives in service to this country, I think it’s tragic and it speaks volumes about the inability of our country — I’ll put the both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in this — [lawmakers are] too worried about their jobs in order to reach an agreement.”

Baucus did not formally pronounce the supercommittee’s efforts dead, but he left little doubt that he is not optimistic about the outcome. His diagnosis for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction carries extra weight because he has been a key player in just about every protracted congressional negotiation on domestic policy for the past 11 years — from the 2001 George W. Bush tax cuts to President Obama’s health-care legislation to this year’s debt debates.

His years of being the man in the middle have earned Baucus both scorn and respect, depending on the issue. His work with Republicans early last decade made him someone they think they can deal with, but his co-sponsorship of Obama’s health-care bill in 2009 and 2010 sharpened him into a more partisan Democrat in their eyes.

Some liberals in Congress will never forgive him for working with the Bush White House to pass the 2001 tax cuts — which now are a major factor in the nation’s fiscal calamity — and a Medicare prescription drug deal in 2003. Throughout his participation in the debt panel, some Democrats have been wary of Baucus, fearing that he’ll go too far in his dealings with individual Republicans.

Regardless, Baucus has been a close ally for the past seven years with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who serves on Baucus’s Finance Committee.

A marathon runner who finished a 50-mile race in 2003 after falling and cutting his head, Baucus knows the ebb and flow of marathon negotiations as well as anyone under the Capitol dome. These talks have not had any of the same feel in the waning hours as those other, successful negotiations.

Aside from a public hearing in early November, the 12 members of the committee have not met together behind closed doors in more than three weeks. Instead, Baucus has been one of half a dozen Democrats and Republicans engaging in shuttle diplomacy, going from small huddle to small huddle. He has worked most closely with his House counterpart, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

Another such huddle came Thursday evening in the small hideaway office of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), with a handful of committee members present. No progress was reported. Top congressional leaders have monitored the talks, mostly by dispatching their top advisers and sometimes meeting briefly with panel members. In the past few days, they have held back from giving a final push for a deal.

Each day this week has begun with the committee convening in separate partisan corners. Democrats meet in the first floor of the Capitol in offices of the Foreign Relations Committee, which Kerry chairs, and Republicans meet in the offices of the House Republican Conference, which is chaired by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), the top Republican on the debt panel.

At the Democratic meeting Thursday morning, Baucus said that he became exasperated.

“What in the world are we doing? Who are we,” he asked. If the committee does not act by midnight Wednesday, all its special legislative privileges disappear, blowing what the senator considers a major opportunity to do something big.

“We’re at a time in American history where everybody's afraid, the fear of losing their job, to move toward the center,” he said. “A deadline is insufficient. You gotta have people who are willing to move.”

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