GREAT FALLS – U.S. Sen. Max Baucus is betting that voters are willing to take cuts to government services — perhaps even along with a tax hike. It’s a big bet.
The veteran Democrat finds himself yet again in the middle of the most contentious decision in Washington D.C. with his seat on the deficit reduction supercommittee. But with approval ratings still stinging from the controversial health care law he helped craft, Baucus is taking a gamble that constituents back home will reward the latest work in the spotlight.
Success for the committee could result in changes that can be tough on politicians: big cuts to government programs, a loss of tax credits or deductions — or perhaps even increased tax rates. Failure likely means yet another partisan meltdown not popular with many voters either.
Baucus is keenly aware of the risks. He decided to do it anyway because he sensed a chance to get results — despite the obvious challenges.
“Frankly I think the stakes are pretty high on this. People want us to get the job done.” Baucus said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I don’t look at the risks, because I know what we have to do and I will do my best doing it.
“I feel I have to go in and help as much as I can to save our state and our nation.”
Baucus has long had a reputation as a deal-maker in Washington D.C. Often those deals have helped him politically, such as when he stood by former President George Bush’s side at the signing of the 2001 tax cuts. Baucus was one of only 12 Democrats to vote for it.
And in 2003, Baucus was one of only two Democrats to help Bush and Republicans change the Medicare prescription drug plan.
His deal-making ways have in the past led to charges of betrayal from fellow Democrats in Washington D.C. But it has served him well back home, where he overwhelmingly won re-election in 2002 and 2008.
Then came the health care debate in the summer of 2009 when Baucus led the “Gang of Six” senators that failed to reach a bipartisan solution — but still crafted the framework for what would become much of the health care law.
Baucus took heat both from liberals — who didn’t like what they perceived as deals cut with the insurance industry — and conservatives who loudly revile the law. Few back home loved it.
After the health care debate his approval rating sunk by 20 points — to below 40 percent — according to some polls. Another big negative hit would not be helpful for his 2014 re-election effort.
Nonpartisan congressional budget staffers have told the supercommittee that reducing the deficit $1.5 trillion as intended mean citizens will either have to pay more for government or accept less in services — or both.
Baucus said any successful deal would have to take a balanced approach that affects many, and does not unfairly target one group. The size of the cuts could even mean reductions to sacred cows like Medicare and Medicaid.
“That is a fundamental decision this country is going to have to make: How much in services? How much in revenue?” Baucus said. “We are all, all of us, going to be asked to do our best to reach that balance.”
But Baucus said voters will reward success because concern over the deficit has reached an all-time high. He believes a bipartisan debt deal would help breathe life into an economy troubled by partisan gridlock over the federal budget.
“I think if we get a very significant agreement that seems broadly fair, then that would be success. Because people know we have to live within our means,” Baucus said. “It is a huge challenge.”
University of Montana political scientist James Lopach said the fate of the health care bill, in the courts and in Congress, could still affect Baucus’ popularity back home. The reaction to the deficit committee is even more uncertain.
Lopach said he thinks deliberations open to the public would help Baucus because he could be seen as a moderate. But closed hearings that end in no deal will hang all participants with the effects of the automatic cuts scheduled to take place if no deal is reached.
“I think my ultimate conclusion is that he is deep down an innately moderate, conciliatory kind of guy. And I think there has always been a majority of the electorate in Montana that corresponds to that and supports that,” Lopach said. “I don’t seem him coming out really strongly for major revenue raising measures, or major cuts. I see him somewhere in between. I think that matches up with public opinion.”
Unlike the 2009 health care debate when Baucus was met with skepticism and protests back home, the senator first elected in 1978, said people are much more supportive of solving the deficit — no matter what it takes. And Baucus said he is making sure to get deficit ideas from Montanans.
Baucus said he believes voters will approve the end product.
“We’ll see. Todays I say, yes. Today based on what I hear from people: ‘Max, get the job done. We are sure pulling for you. We are praying for you,'” Baucus said.
Baucus said a committee like this, with the potential for a lasting bipartisan agreement, does not come around very often. He a deficit deal is needed no matter the stakes.
“Failure is not an option here,” said Baucus.
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