For Sen. Baucus, Deficit Panel May Be An Opportunity

Aug 19, 2011
Originally published on August 22, 2011 6:29 pm

Twelve members of Congress have until Thanksgiving to cut roughly $1.5 trillion from the federal deficit. Among the six Democrats and six Republicans on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, dubbed the "supercommittee," is longtime Montana Sen. Max Baucus.

The Democrat is one of the longest-serving members of Congress currently in office. He's been in the Senate since 1978, but it wasn't until 2001, when he became chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, that he appeared in the national spotlight.

Pat Williams was Montana's Democratic representative through the 1980s and '90s. While he considers Baucus a friend, he doesn't agree with many of his fiscal policies.

"Professionally, I have to say that I've been disappointed with some of Max's legislative work," including the health care overhaul and the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit plan, Williams says.

"But most notably," he adds, "I've been disappointed in that he was the leading Democrat who engineered the passage of George W. Bush's tax cuts, which have been disastrous for the country."

Baucus did support the 2001 tax cuts, but not the second round of cuts in 2003.

University of Montana political science professor Christopher Muste says that while Baucus is considered a progressive on many social and environmental issues, he has become a conservative anchor for the Democratic Party on fiscal issues.

"I think he's also a very cautious politician by nature," says Muste, "and I think that cautiousness makes him even more moderate in a lot of his policy actions and trying to build coalitions within the Congress."

Muste says one of those coalitions Baucus attempted to forge was during the debate on health care. Baucus angered many liberal Democrats when he took the public option off the table in a failed attempt to bring more conservative Republicans onboard.

"So I think he's got to view this bipartisan commission as one of his few chances to actually really come back and re-establish his credibility as one of the key players in deficit reduction in Congress," Muste says.

The senator has been tight-lipped about his ideas for cutting the deficit. But he recently told the editorial board at the Independent Record in Helena, Mont., that any sustainable solution has to contain both spending cuts and increased revenue.

"I think he is looking out, I believe, for Montana, but also for business and quite frankly the economy of America as a whole," says Webb Brown, president and CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce. Brown says his organization isn't opposed to looking at the revenue side of the federal ledger.

"And you have to have that consideration, to make sure that the decisions are going to be good for our future — not just for now," he says.

Williams, the former Montana congressman, says Baucus deserves his seat on the supercommittee, but he adds that Democratic leaders will be making sure Baucus doesn't give up too much to Republicans. "So I'm hoping that Sen. Baucus will frankly change."

Baucus said recently that this newly formed supercommittee can't just talk or grandstand — he believes the bipartisan panel can beat the deficit.

Copyright 2013 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.mtpr.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel.

It has been dubbed the supercommittee. Twelve members of Congress have until Thanksgiving to cut roughly $1.5 trillion from the federal deficit.

We've been profiling some of the supercommittee's key members and today we take you to Montana to tell you about Senator Max Baucus.

From Montana public radio, Emilie Ritter has his story.

EMILIE RITTER: Democratic Senator Max Baucus is one of the longest serving members of Congress currently in office. He's been in the Senate since 1978, but it wasn't until 2001 when he became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and he appeared in the national spotlight.

Pat Williams was Montana's Democratic congressman through the 1980s and '90s. While he considers Baucus a friend, he doesn't agree with many of his fiscal policies.

Representative PAT WILLIAMS: Professionally, I have to say that I've been disappointed with some of Max's legislative work.

RITTER: Including health care reform and the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit plan.

WILLIAMS: But most notably, I've been disappointed in that he was the leading Democrat who engineered the passage of George W. Bush's tax cuts, which have been disastrous for the country.

RITTER: Senator Baucus did support the 2001 tax cuts, but not the second round of cuts in 2003.

University of Montana political science professor, Christopher Muste, says while Baucus is considered a progressive on many social and environmental issues, he's become a conservative anchor for the Democratic party on fiscal issues.

CHRISTOPHER MUSTE: I think he's also a very cautious politician by nature and I think that cautiousness makes him even more moderate in a lot of his policy actions and trying to build coalitions within the Congress.

RITTER: Muste says one of those recent coalitions Senator Baucus attempted to forge was during the debate on health care reform. Senator Baucus angered many liberal Democrats when he took the public option off the table in a failed attempt to bring more conservative Republicans onboard.

MUSTE: So I think he's got to view this bipartisan commission as one of his few chances to actually really come back and reestablish his credibility as one of the key players in deficit reduction in Congress.

RITTER: The senator has been tight-lipped about his ideas for cutting the deficit, although he recently told the editorial board at the Helena Independent Record that any sustainable solution has to contain both spending cuts and increased revenue.

WEBB BROWN: I think he is looking out, I believe, for Montana, but also for business and, quite frankly, the economy of America as a whole.

RITTER: Webb Brown is president and CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce. He says his organization isn't opposed to looking at the revenue side of the federal ledger.

BROWN: And you have to have that consideration to make sure that the decisions are going to be good for our future, not just for now.

RITTER: Former Congressman Pat Williams says Baucus deserves his seat on the supercommittee, but adds Democratic leaders will be making sure Baucus doesn't give up too much to Republicans.

WILLIAMS: So I'm hoping that Senator Baucus will, frankly, change.

RITTER: Senator Max Baucus said recently, this newly formed supercommittee can't just talk or grandstand. He believes the bipartisan panel can beat the deficit.

For NPR News, I'm Emilie Ritter in Helena, Montana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.