Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus won’t seek re-election in 2014, ending a 36-year tenure capped by his co-authorship of the 2010 health-care law.
“It was just an agonized decision,” the Montana Democrat said in a brief interview in the Capitol with his wife, Melodee, by his side. “I’ve just been wrestling with it for months.”
Baucus, 71, has been the top Democrat on the Finance Committee since 2001, often frustrating members of his party by negotiating with Republicans at length and breaking with Democrats on issues such as gun restrictions and the estate tax.
He supported President George W. Bush’s tax cuts in 2001, rejected President Barack Obama’s call for expanded background checks on gun purchasers this month and voted against Senate Democrats’ budget plan last month. Last week, he called the implementation of the health-care law a “train wreck.”
Baucus told Senator Jon Tester, another Montana Democrat, of his decision not to seek another six-year term yesterday during the pair’s weekly meeting in the Capitol, Tester said today in an interview.
Tester, 56, said he thinks Baucus’s decision may have been influenced by the announced retirements of other senior Democratic senators, such as Carl Levin of Michigan and Tom Harkin of Iowa. About half of the Senate’s seats have changed hands in the past six years, Tester said.
If he had run and won, Baucus would have turned 79 just before the end of the new term. Baucus said in the interview that there was no specific event that prompted his decision.
“A lot of the old guard’s gone now,” Tester said. “You start looking around and say to yourself, these guys have made a decision.”
In addition to Levin and Harkin, the three other Democrats who have announced they are retiring from the Senate after this term are Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Tim Johnson of South Dakota. Of those three, only Johnson, at 64, is younger than Baucus.
The Montanan’s departure may make it easier for Republicans to win a seat in 2014 in a state that Obama lost last year by 14 percentage points.
Michael Bennet of Colorado, chairman of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, said he expects the party to “compete and win” in Montana by using the ground operation it built for Tester’s re-election in 2012.
Brian Schweitzer, a former governor, is considering running for the seat, said a person familiar with his thinking who asked not to be identified speaking without authorization.
Schweitzer probably would be the strongest candidate for Democrats. He was elected governor in 2004 with 50 percent of the vote and then re-elected in 2008 with 65 percent, leaving the office early this year with high approval ratings. He couldn’t seek another four years as governor because of term limits in Montana.
Schweitzer is “sitting in the catbird’s seat at the moment” and is popular with political independents because he “calls it like he sees it,” said David Parker, who teaches politics at Montana State University in Bozeman. “I think people appreciate his frankness,” Parker said. “He’ll call bull on either side as necessary.”
Baucus indicated his decision to fellow lawmakers today, said Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the committee’s top Republican.
“It’s a great loss as far as I’m concerned,” Hatch said.
Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Baucus’s retirement reflects the “political reality” that the health-care overhaul is becoming a “real-life pain” for Americans.
“The 2014 electoral map is in free-fall for Democrats,” Collins said in a statement.
Baucus won re-election three times when Democratic presidential candidates lost his home state -- in 1984, 1996 and 2008. He has never run during a midterm election with a Democratic president -- the prospect that confronted him next year.
“Look, it’s Montana,” Tester said. “You’ve got to go out to the voters. You’ve got to talk to voters. And I think voters in Montana are less persuaded by party and more persuaded by substance.”
Until he retires, Baucus said in a statement that he will work on a rewrite of the U.S. tax code, reducing the nation’s debt, “pushing important job-creating trade agreements through the Senate, and implementing and expanding affordable health care for more Americans.”
After Baucus leaves, the senior Democrat on the Finance Committee would be Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, now chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Wyden, long an advocate of tax simplification, declined to comment today on whether he would be interested in being Finance chairman.
“There are so many areas” where Baucus “was able to bridge the differences between Democrats and Republicans,” said Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, as he left a Finance Committee hearing today.
“He has a way of bringing our committee together, which is going to be missed,” Cardin said. Baucus created a “climate” for nonpartisan consideration of tax policy, he said.
Baucus’ decision was hailed by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an activist group that targeted him in Montana newspaper advertisements after he voted last week against expanding a background-check system for gun purchasers.
“Montana will finally have a chance to have a senator with its best interests at heart, and we hope Brian Schweitzer jumps into the race immediately,” Stephanie Taylor, a co-founder of the group, said in a statement.
Obama issued a statement thanking Baucus for his services that didn’t mention the senator’s work on the president’s top priorities, including health care and the 2009 stimulus law.
“Max has been a leader on a broad range of issues that touch the lives of Americans across the country,” Obama said.