- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

Max Baucus just might be Washington’s most in-demand person in 2009 not named Obama.

Max Baucus just might be Washington’s most in-demand person in 2009 not named Obama.

Requests for speaking engagements have poured into his office in recent months. He is a sought-after guest on television news shows. And he is a no stranger at the White House.

Tasked with drafting the president’s promise to overhaul the nation’s health care system by the end of the year, the Montana Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee has had time to concentrate on little else.

“I’ve served in the Senate for 30 years, and this is the hardest legislative challenge of my lifetime,” Mr. Baucus told the National Business Group on Health’s Washington conference on Wednesday.

But the chairman, whose committee essentially controls Congress’ checkbook by holding jurisdiction over tax issues, said he relishes the opportunity to ensure that every American is covered by a health care plan.

“This is fun — this is the kind of work for which I signed on,” he said. “This is the kind of job that made me ask the people of Montana to hire me in the first place.”

Mr. Baucus isn’t the only muscle behind the health care push. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate Heath, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has been a leading advocate for health care reform for decades. No final plan will be presented without significant input from the Massachusetts Democrat.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry A. Waxman, whose committee has jurisdiction in the chamber over writing health care policy, also will play an important role in crafting legislation.

But the Senate, not the House, is taking the lead in drafting a health care reform package, leaving Mr. Waxman as a key — but not the key — player on the issue.

And with Mr. Kennedy away from Capitol Hill for most of the past year receiving treatment for brain cancer, Mr. Baucus is now the principle field general for the Obama administration’s push to overhaul the health care system — Washington’s number one priority this year.

Mr. Baucus, one of the most approachable senators and a man who rarely shakes off a reporter’s question, is publicly modest about his responsibilities, dismissing the notion that he has become the public face of the health care reform movement.

“I don’t know — all I’m saying is I really care about this, and I’m just trying to accomplish health care reform this year,” he said. “It’s my passion.

“There are others who care as deeply as I, but I care deeply, too.”

The final cost of health care reform for the time being is anyone’s guess. The president has pledged to spend at least $634 billion on health care issues during the next 10 years, although his budget director, Peter R. Orszag, last week called the figure only a “significant down payment.”

But Mr. Baucus says that the cost of doing nothing would far exceed the price tag for overhauling the system, saying that it’s Washington’s moral obligation to ensure every American has access to affordable health care.

“It is our shared duty to work toward comprehensive reform,” he said. “Let us leave this world a better place than we found it. And let us leave a better health care system for our kids and our grandkids.”

Despite his focus on health care, Mr. Baucus, as finance chairman, can’t afford to ignore other issues. With the country facing its worst economic decline in more than 60 years, the senator and his committee played a major role in crafting the $787 billion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed by the president last month.

Agricultural issues also remain a key interest for the Montana senator, who last year helped pass a five-year “farm bill” that dedicated $290 billion to boost subsidies for farmers and money for food stamps.

Mr. Baucus’ work on the bill, along with his support of fair-trade agreements, led to him being named last month as “Wheat Leader of the Year” from the National Association of Wheat Growers and the U.S. Wheat Associates.

Yet the senator has preached that health care reform and the overall state of the economy are inherently linked, and he predicted that ignoring the problem will lead to a fiscal crisis of mammoth scale.

“Every 30 seconds, someone files for bankruptcy after a serious health problem,” Mr. Baucus said. “A delay in tackling health care costs would have disastrous consequences.”

The moderate Western Democrat occasionally is at odds with more left-leaning members of his party.

He supported and helped write President Bush’s 2001 tax-cut package, irking many Democrats.

And the National Riffle Association endorsed Mr. Baucus’ 2008 re-election bid, a contest he won with 73 percent of the vote.

Only Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska has a more conservative voting history among Senate Democrats, according to a survey by the National Journal.

The senator’s skill at directing money for pet projects for Montana has led his critics to call him “the high plains grifter.”

The liberal magazine The Nation, in a 2007 article titled “K Street’s Favorite Democrat,” accused Mr. Baucus, who typically receives most of his campaign money from donors outside his home state, of having uncomfortably cozy relationships with lobbyists. Another liberal publication, the American Spectator, jokingly refers to him as “Bad Max.”

Mr. Baucus has never apologized nor shied from ruffling party feathers. He publicly disagreed with the president this month for proposing deep cuts to agricultural subsidies to farmers earning more than $500,000, saying the number “does not successfully distinguish between struggling farmers and wealthy landowners.”

The lawmaker also criticized Mr. Obama for proposing to repeal President Bush’s tax cuts on workers who make more than $250,000 before they expire at the end of 2010, saying such a move could stifle charitable giving and discriminate against taxpayers who live in high-tax states.

But Mr. Baucus, who maintains an affable, polite, tactful demeanor in public and has a reputation as one of the most nonpartisan members of Congress, manages to avoid burning many political bridges.

“I hate this word ‘bipartisan,’ but that’s what it is: working together, both Republicans and Democrats, totally,” said Mr. Baucus at a health care briefing with reporters this month at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “We have to suspend judgment against concepts that we may otherwise illogically or for whatever reason automatically knee-jerk against.

“We just keep open minds.”

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