Like father & son: It's a Big Sky bond
Montana isn't all that connects Baucus and White House operative

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."

"Lookit," he continued, gruffly. "Once family, always family, in my outfit. But he's a professional -- a total professional. He's not going to tell me things he shouldn't, and it works both ways."

A special bond

In Baucus's waiting room, maps of Montana and pictures of cowboys on horseback hang on the walls above a stack of Montana Outdoors magazine ("Inside: Learning to Love My Bighorn Ewe Tag.") Baucus greets visitors and walks stiffly to his high-ceilinged inner chamber, painted red and decorated with a "Montana Max" license plate. He takes a seat in an armchair and talks in halting, elliptical sentences about his work and personal life. When discussing Messina, though, a glow comes over his face, as he waxes nostalgic over a montage of Messina-and-me moments.

Baucus recalls that Messina was "very touched" by a rehearsal-dinner speech Baucus had delivered before Zeno's wedding last year, in which the senator said Messina's new job meant he was losing two sons. It was "Jim's idea" to give a bottle of colon cleanser to Montana's junior senator, Jon Tester, on the eve of the colonoscopy he was keeping secret. They used their "take-no-prisoners attitude" to help kill President George W. Bush's plan to privatize Social Security. They ran incredibly long distances together along the Kim Williams Nature Trail in Missoula. They ate steak and fries every week at Capitol Hill's Bistro Bis, during which the elder divorcé dispensed dating advice. And with paternal pride, he relates that President Obama has called on Messina to start off morning meetings of top advisers, because Messina, Baucus said, is an "upper."

As long as the bond between Baucus and Messina lives in the realm of personal affinity, the power brokers and their allies are all too happy to share. But the moment the personal drifts into the professional and the specter is raised of the White House's capitalizing on Messina's role as Baucus whisperer, everyone balks.

"Jim is someone they would want even absent his relationship and experience with Senator Baucus," said Peter L. Scher, a former Baucus chief of staff who became a Clinton administration official. "The fact that Baucus is in the middle of the health-care debate, and Jim has a relationship with him, is an added bonus."

The White House chose Messina to be the emissary to Baucus and his committee when Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary nominee with tax problems, ran into confirmation trouble.

"That was weird, to sit on the other side of the table for the first time with him," said Messina, adding, "He did his job as oversight, and I did my job to get Secretary Geithner confirmed."

Then Messina scored another victory inside the White House when he helped urge Baucus to quickly pass the federal stimulus. But those early collaborations may have set up some unrealistic expectations about how quickly health-care reform could pass Baucus's committee.

This past summer, the White House again tasked Messina to work his former boss, this time on the health-care bill before the finance panel. But the legislation lingered as Baucus courted Republican senators such as Iowa's Charles Grassley, despite the protests of liberals on his committee and White House officials, who suspected the Republicans of passive-aggression. By early September, Obama, who had taken a beating in August town-hall harangues, decided enough was enough and took his health-care overhaul message over Baucus's head and to a joint session of Congress.

"It is fair to say that I expressed frustrations with how long it took, but also it's fair to say that after working for 15 years on the committee, I understood the personalities," said Messina, who said that Baucus's response to his urgings to hurry things up was " 'I'm trying.' "

In October, Baucus's committee eventually passed a health reform bill similar to what Obama had requested in October, with the support of one Republican, Olympia Snowe of Maine. Baucus argued that he continued to play a critical role in the molding of the legislation after it left his committee and entered the jurisdiction of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. According to Baucus's office, the senator continues to hold regular meetings with Finance Committee Democrats, and is constantly on the phone with fellow moderates, including Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, whose votes are critical for Democrats to break a Republican filibuster. Even as Baucus has dealt with other senior White House officials, he has kept a wide-open line of communication to Messina throughout the process, affording the White House a real-time assessment of the deliberations.

And in the beginning of November, the Montana senator reached out to his former aide with a courtesy heads-up: He would be voting against a climate-change bill in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that all the Republicans members were boycotting. When he cast his nay vote Nov. 5, he was the only Democrat on the committee to do so.

"The fact is that lots of things have to get done," said Messina, who remained confident that Baucus would ultimately support comprehensive energy reform when it winds up in Baucus's panel. "Lots of things go through that committee."

But Messina is hardly the only former Baucus staffer appealing to the powerful chairman. Several former top aides to Baucus have found gainful employment in the pharmaceutical industry, among others.

"They don't lobby me, nooo," said Baucus, as he walked out of his office. "That's one of the reasons we respect each other so much. They don't take advantage of prior employment. No. No. No. We're just friends."

Motioning to the senior staff's cubicles around him, where Messina used to sit, he concluded, "They may talk to other people here."

Ambition and instinct

For a long time, Messina ranked first among those "other people here."

After successfully managing the reelection campaign of Mayor Dan Kemmis in Missoula in 1993 as a University of Montana undergrad, Messina heeded the calls of Democratic officials and moved to Helena.

"I brought him over because he was an out-and-out flaming liberal," said Gene Fenderson, a labor leader and veteran of Montana Democratic politics, who is also a co-founder of Montanans for Single-Payer. Jimmy the Stick, as the skinny Messina was known, made a name for himself in Helena as a competent operative, Fenderson said. In 1995, Messina's success attracted attention from the office of Baucus, a centrist who was elected to the Senate in 1978.

Messina jumped at the chance to go to Washington, disappointing some Big Sky State liberals who saw their ally making an ideological leap, too.

"This guy switched political beliefs in a nanosecond, on the airplane somewhere over Ohio," Fenderson said of Messina. In Baucus's Hart Building office, Messina's arrival is instead told as the first chapter in a Washington fairy tale.

"Jim is like the classic Horatio Alger story here in Washington," said Baucus's current chief of staff, John Selib. "He started off at our front desk."

As Messina climbed the ranks in Baucus's office, his ambition also led him to depart for opportunities with other Democratic lawmakers.

In 1999, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York interviewed him for a job as her chief of staff. When she asked his career goal, Messina didn't flinch.

"'I'm going to work in the White House,'" he responded, according to McCarthy.

McCarthy, then still relatively new to Congress, said the 20-something quickly whipped her office into shape. When they'd work late, which was often, she'd buy her aide dinner at the Democratic Club and offer him maternal advice on life and love.

McCarthy said Messina surprised her when he said he intended to return to Baucus's employ. She and Messina had obsessively worked on gun control, her signature issue. Baucus had a more conservative positions on guns, to say the least.

"Carolyn," Messina said, according to McCarthy, "my job is to get the guy elected."

Over the next several years, he did just that. In 2002, Messina masterminded a bruising attack ad against Republican state Sen. Mike Taylor, a former hairdresser. The ad featured video footage of Taylor, then decades younger and bearded, setting the hair and massaging the temples of a mustachioed man in a beauty salon chair -- with a funky bomp-chic-a-bomp-bomp '70s beat in the background. The spot ends with a frozen frame of Taylor reaching down and out of sight toward the other man's lap. Disapprovingly, a voice-over declares, "Mike Taylor: Not the way we do business here in Montana."

"They were trying to imply that because I worked in a beauty salon, I was gay," said Taylor, who is not. A national champion in barber competitions, sheep breeding and the shooting of sporting clays, Taylor had fostered a competitive streak in which quitting was not an option. But with that ad lobbed into that political terrain, Taylor bowed out.

Stephanie Schriock, Tester's chief of staff, cited the ad as one example of how Baucus has long appreciated and been served by Messina's killer instinct. "Jim was willing to make the hard call to put an ad out there," she said.

In 2004, after Messina had helped reelect Sen. Byron Dorgan in North Dakota, Barrett Kaiser, another Baucus aide, says Messina went to his annual vacation spot in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where a hotel manager ran out to the pool shouting his name.

"'Señor Jim! Señor Jim! Señor Max is on the phone,'" Kaiser recounted. The senator required his services again.

Messina returned to Baucus's office, where they played a major role in defeating Bush's effort to privatize Social Security. The victory and Messina's effectiveness on the Hill didn't go unnoticed. White House communications director Anita Dunn, who had worked with Messina in a 1998 congressional race in Wisconsin and in an Alaska Senate race in 2004, suggested to Rouse that the operative come on as the Obama campaign's chief of staff in the general election. Dunn described Baucus as "supportive" of the effort.

And after Obama won, the new administration again tried to woo Messina away from Baucus.

"They had offered him a job, it was a good job, but it wasn't what he wanted," Baucus said, recalling the first White House recruiting effort to get Messina on board. Administration recruiters tried Messina again, reaching him by cellphone as Baucus was literally standing by his side at a Grizzlies football game in Missoula.

Messina excused himself so he could hear just what they were offering, came back to his seat, and told his old boss he had a new job.

"I said, 'Gee, that's great, Jim,' " said Baucus bittersweetly.

Pleasure and business

On Oct. 30, Baucus threw a 40th-birthday party for his former aide at the Gibson, the neo-speakeasy off U Street NW. It was a rager. Fire marshals walked out of the unmarked door and told a doorman keeping tight control of the guest list not to let anyone else in. A small crowd huddled outside in the drizzle.

Inside, Baucus stood up before the guests and introduced a video featuring Messina's bosses throughout his career, including Obama. At the end of the night, Messina drank beer and talked football in a corner with Zeno Baucus.

One partygoer explained that the night's revelry wouldn't necessarily carry over into the grind of governing. "This is serious business," John Podesta, a chief of staff in the Clinton administration, said as he exited the club. "Maybe that's where the father-son thing breaks down, because a father might throw the game for his son. In this case, he's going to do what he thinks is the best thing to do."

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