Baucus’s Bad News Week

You don’t generally think of Max Baucus as a headline-seeking kind of legislator. He’s not the guy showing up every Sunday on the talk shows, or getting into every Washington Post story to weigh in on the issue of the day. So you don’t see a lot of Max on the national stage, and that must be the way he wants it, because the chair of the Senate Finance Committee is a pretty good platform for getting attention. But he’s had a place in the headlines all week, and it hasn’t been because of his stellar work on healthcare reform–it’s because he’s now perceived as the primary cause of delays. Oh, and the fact that he’s still raking in the cash from the anti-reform lobbies.

Let’s revisit Baucus’s year so far on health reform. Back in February, he said, [pdf]  “Based on the experience in 1993‐94…we must move swiftly on health reform – to take advantage of the air of inevitability and the early goodwill of health care stakeholders and interest groups…. And the longer it takes, the more likely it is that the agenda becomes crowded with other priorities.” Makes sense.

In March, he stressed a number of times that the work was on pace: March 10, “Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., doubled down on his own self-imposed time line, promising earlier action than the president has asked for. ‘We should put a health care bill on the president’s desk this summer,’ Baucus said, promising his committee will mark up the bill in June.” March 11, “Our schedule calls for the Finance Committee to mark up a comprehensive health care reform bill in June. We should put a health care bill on the President’s desk this year.” April 28, “The Finance Leaders have said they intend to mark‐up comprehensive health care reform legislation as early as June.” On May 4, Baucus said his committee is “working hard to pass legislation through the committee by mid-June.” May 7: “our schedule is on track. These discussions are preparing us to be ready to mark up a bill in June.”

Then comes June 17: “We’ll be ready when we’re ready. I just don’t want to give a firm date.” Then on June 26, “‘We’re getting a lot closer to an agreement,’ noting that committee members will consider the options over the July 4 recess and produce a bill shortly after Congress returns on July 6.”

Fast forward to July 13: “Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has learned to stop offering deadlines for when his panel might mark up health overhaul legislation…. Already, a markup scheduled to take place before the July Fourth recess never materialized and the multiday markup expected this week has now been tentatively moved to the final week of July.”

That leads us to this week, when a lot of people started to wonder what the heck is going on in those closed door meeting Baucus is having all the time, and why they aren’t seeing anything produced. That includes his Democratic colleagues in the Senate, according to yesterday’s Roll Call.

Democrats both on and off the Finance Committee said the briefings they get about the six negotiators’ progress are too vague. Plus, they say, without a bill in hand, they cannot defend or sell the package to a wary media and public.

“At some point, [Baucus is] going to have to worry about getting Democratic votes,” said one Democratic Senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If they think that we’ll take whatever it is that comes out because we want to get something passed, they’re wrong.”

What should be just as worrisome for Baucus is the increasing attention being paid to his outside activities–specifically his fundraising. He brought it on himself, of course. Remember in June when his “vacation” back home raised questions?

He did make some headlines with that collecting of campaign contributions, particularly last weekend in the form of a lobbyist party back home in Montana, hosting a bunch of lobbyists and political supporters for his Fly-Fishing & Golfing weekend in Big Sky at $2,500 a pop, $5,000 for a political action committee. He’s going to do it again at “Camp Baucus,” at the end of July. One activist characterized this all as “unseemly,” since he is at the center of the most critical reform debate of the session. Unseemly? Not in Max’s mind. “There’s no problem. I’ve been doing these events for more than 10 years.”

That leads to this week, when NPR decided to ask, “Who Has Access to Max Baucus?” You’ll be shocked, shocked by the conclusion.

Paul Blumenthal, a writer for the nonpartisan watchdog the Sunlight Foundation, mapped Baucus’ network of influence….

“We have Max Baucus, who represents a single node, as the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee,” Blumenthal explains. On his computer screen, lines radiate from Baucus to five of his former Senate staffers. Two of them served as chief of staff to Baucus, the top job in his Senate office.

All five now lobby Congress for various interests. Among their clients: drugmakers Wyeth, Merck, Amgen and AstraZeneca, plus the third-largest corporation in the world, Wal-Mart….

When Baucus ran for his sixth term last year, his campaign raised $11.6 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Nearly half of the funds came from out-of-state donors, including millions from health care and other industries overseen by Finance and Baucus’ other committees.

Just 5 percent of Baucus’ re-election funds came from Montana donors….

The fundraising balance for Baucus tips even more sharply when his personal “leadership PAC” is factored in. The committee, called Glacier PAC, raises money to pay for Baucus to travel, raise his political profile and support other Democrats….

Baucus courts these inside-the-Beltway donors by inviting them to Montana for weekend getaways — skis and snowmobiles in February, fly fishing and golf in June, and coming up on July 31, “Camp Baucus,” which is billed as “a trip for the whole family.”

Tickets start at $2,500.

Since 2005, seven out of 10 top contributors to Baucus and his leadership PAC have been from the health industry.

So that could lead a very cynical person to start thinking about the fact that once healthcare reform passes, the industry money flowing to politicians is largely going to stop flowing. It could lead a very cynical person to start wondering if Max Baucus–one of very few people in a position to hold this bill up–might be at all motivated by the lavish spending from the industry that’s going to continue as long as this process goes on.

Cross-posted from New West.

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