Former Baucus aide Jim Messina pushes his old boss on health care reform

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

Hours after Max Baucus slipped out the back door of Room 216 in the Hart Senate Office Building -- in the middle of his committee's health-care deliberations on Sept. 25 -- he pulled up a seat at the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas next to Jim Messina, the White House's political fixer for the reform effort.

The meeting had all the makings of a secret out-of-town summit between the point men for the executive and legislative branches on the most ambitious domestic policy overhaul in a half-century.

That, or a quick family reunion.

"He's like a son to me," Baucus, the 67-year-old Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said of Messina.

"He's a father figure to me," Messina, the 40-year-old White House deputy chief of staff, said of Baucus.

The two Montanans had gathered in the Vegas restaurant Aureole with more than a dozen close friends and family to kick off a weekend 33rd-birthday celebration for Baucus's biological son, Zeno. But it is the father-son relationship between Baucus and his former chief of staff Messina that matters for people who care about the health-care politics that shaped the Finance Committee's bill and this week's $848 billion Senate bill to overhaul the system, not to mention climate change or any other of the many big-ticket items on the Obama agenda that have to pass through Baucus's committee.

After more than a decade of waging legislative and political battles side by side, the two University of Montana Grizzlies football fanatics have now found themselves facing off on the major issues of the day. Messina's new job raises the question of how the legislative battles will affect their relationship, but more significant, how their relationship will affect the legislative battles.

Messina acknowledges that his link to Baucus is an asset. "It enables me . . . " he said in a telephone interview this month, pausing -- before rushing to note that other White House senior staffers had come up through Capitol Hill. For instance, many senior lawmakers consider Obama senior adviser Pete Rouse the 101st senator, and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel might as well be House speaker-in-waiting, on loan to the West Wing. "I worked for Max Baucus and the Finance Committee for 15 years. Does that give me an advantage to give people advice and to find out what's going on in the Finance Committee with Max? Absolutely."

Messina stressed, however, that experienced insight, unfiltered channels of communication and unlimited access are good things to have but don't necessarily translate into influence over Baucus. "People never say, 'This is your guy,' " Messina said. "I'm Barack Obama's guy. I'm his deputy chief of staff in the White House."

The senator agreed with that assessment perhaps more than Messina -- or his bosses -- might have liked.

"He's not going to put pressure on me," Baucus said recently in his Hart Building suite. "Noooo."

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