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Baucus's Bumpy Middle Road

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

In the early 1970s, when Max Baucus, now the senior senator from Montana and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was contemplating entering politics, he sought advice from many veteran public servants.

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His steps brought him to the Washington law offices of James H. Rowe Jr., who came out of Montana and Harvard Law School to join FDR's White House staff and later became a counselor to Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and many others of that generation.

As I eventually heard, Rowe -- who took the time to teach this reporter valuable political lessons -- was impressed with the young, good-looking visitor who was backed by a wealthy, well-established Montana family, and encouraged him to pursue his dreams.

But before he left, Baucus asked Rowe one surprising question: Do you think I should run as a Republican or a Democrat?

Rowe, the old New Dealer, said, "I sure hope you'll be a Democrat." The ideological ambivalence implicit in that question has dogged Baucus throughout his career. Always a Democrat, he has never been a sure vote for his party's leaders, and on many occasions he has aggravated the more partisan of his colleagues by insisting on going his own way.

It has never hurt him at home. Montana is a bifurcated state. The eastern two-thirds look like the Great Plains states of Nebraska, Kansas and the Dakotas and vote as conservatively as they do. But the western, more mountainous third includes mining centers such as Butte and the academic towns of Helena and Missoula, where Democrats find their votes. Baucus has straddled the divide.

When President Obama put health care at the top of his domestic agenda, Baucus saw the opportunity to cap his career with a historic piece of legislation. Concerned that the other committee with health jurisdiction, then headed by Sen. Ted Kennedy, might move ahead of him, Baucus staked an early claim and let the White House -- and everyone else -- know that he would be the one who mattered.

As it turned out, it was that other committee, led by Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut after Kennedy's terminal illness sidelined him, that completed its work first. But with Baucus leading lengthy negotiations with the "Gang of Six," three Republicans and two other Democrats on Finance, Obama and congressional Democratic leaders kept sliding the deadline for a floor vote in hopes that Baucus could deliver a bipartisan bill.

Last week, Baucus conceded that his effort had failed -- at least, so far -- and said that he would offer his own bill for amendment in committee this week.

He is not alone in discovering that the task of restructuring one-sixth of the American economy and navigating the myriad conflicting interests and constituencies involved is indeed a daunting one. In the House, the bill shaped by three committees has a price tag that many regard as excessive and includes the "public option" that appears to be a nonstarter in the Senate. Dodd's bill faces similar objections.

But it is almost certainly the case that none of the other chairmen has as much riding on this issue as does Baucus. Dodd has written significant bills such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and has a major hand in the financial regulatory bills Obama hopes to see passed this year.

The three House chairmen also have many trophies in their cases. George Miller was a co-author of No Child Left Behind. Henry Waxman's name is on the energy-climate bill awaiting a Senate vote. Charlie Rangel, like every other Ways and Means Committee chairman, produces important tax, trade and welfare legislation as regular as clockwork every two years.

This was to be Baucus's moment. But when it came last week, he had to admit that he had enlisted not one Republican supporter and then had to endure criticism from his fellow Democrats that his measure fell short of what the campaign had promised.

As usual, Baucus is in the middle. But it is a miserable place to be.

davidbroder@washpost.com



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