The Baucus Era

By Beacon Staff

High above Northwest Montana, the tiny plane skimmed a lake of clouds perforated by the snow-mottled peaks of the Cabinet Mountains, which rose in stark relief against the bright blue expanse of the Big Sky. Leaning across the aisle of the twin engine Cessna, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus marveled at the beauty of his home state, snapping photos through the windows with his iPhone.

“Beautiful. This is kind of nostalgic,” he said as the plane circled the town of Libby.

Two days later, the veteran Democrat would return to Washington, D.C., to deliver a farewell address following the Senate’s unanimous confirmation of Baucus as the next U.S. ambassador to China — a diplomatic capstone to his nearly 40-year career in Congress, 36 of which he spent in the Senate, making him the longest-serving senator from Montana and one of the longest-serving senators in U.S. history.

Last April, Baucus stunned the state and national political worlds when he announced that he would not run for re-election, opting instead to build a home near Bozeman and spend more time with his wife, Melodee Hanes, and son, Zeno, an assistant U.S. attorney.

“I was as surprised as anyone. I thought they’d have to carry him out of here feet first,” fellow U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said.

“It was probably the most difficult decision of my life,” Baucus said of his retirement.

But when Vice President Joe Biden approached him about accepting a diplomatic plum to his storied career, Baucus’ interest piqued.

To many, the nomination was as surprising as the retirement, particularly given the way in which it shuffled the political deck chairs in Washington. But given that Baucus’ decision to pursue a career in public service was born of his tramping around Europe, Africa and China in the early-1960s, hitchhiking with a small knapsack slung over his back — “I got around by hook or crook,” he recalled — it’s fitting that Baucus is still driven by a modicum of caprice.

“I decided I wanted a whole new chapter, a brand new adventure,” he said.

How that adventure will define the remaining years of his career remains to be seen, just as his legacy as a D.C. lawmaker begins to take shape.

On Capitol Hill, Baucus is best known for his role as longtime chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, a perch from which he crafted major legislation that overhauled health care, tax policy and the federal budget, as well as for his reputation as a centrist dealmaker —unafraid of breaking party lines, a recusant maverick who sometimes infuriated other Democrats.

Sen. Max Baucus speaks at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease in Libby on Feb. 1. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

“He has taken a lot of grief from members of his party for his willingness to buck the party line but he just believed his bosses were the 900,000 Montanans back home,” said Jim Messina, Baucus’ former chief of staff who later became President Obama’s deputy chief of staff, and the president’s campaign manager in 2012.

Messina has described Baucus as a “father figure” and said the criticisms lobbed from within party lines smarted as a staffer, but the pushback never seemed to bother Baucus.

“That kind of criticism was hard as a staffer, but he never seemed to care,” Messina said. “He believed it was the right thing to do.”

In Montana, far removed from the political theater of Washington, Baucus’ supporters include conservationists and industrialists alike; the former remember his commitment to the landscape, and how those efforts have bookended his career. His critics say he supported industry as often as he championed environment, and built ties to top health insurance companies that reeked of cronyism.

Paul Wilkins, Baucus’ chief of staff since 2012, says his boss took care to work in a central pocket of the spectrum, where the possibility of passing meaningful policy was greatly enhanced.

“He marched to the beat of Montana’s drum,” Wilkins said. “He took his responsibility as a representative of Montana seriously. He literally has a little sign on the front of his desk that says ‘Montana comes first.’ And that was what guided him, and that is what he gives the most weight to in his decision-making process, above partisan ideology.”

In 2001, Baucus helped broker passage of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, the most prominent Democrat to do so, and supported the 2003 Medicare prescription drug plan. Both moves were considered transgressions by other Democrats.

He also voted for the war in Iraq, Bush’s energy and bankruptcy bills and the confirmation of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, and he’s been criticized for accepting special-interest money and sending at least two dozen former staffers to work as lobbyists on K Street, viewed by critics as a sign of interest-peddling.

Robert Saldin, associate professor of political science at the University of Montana, said Baucus, who has cast nearly 12,000 votes in his career, was skilled at working across party lines to craft complex legislation, and his role on the Senate Finance Committee meant that ties to the private sector, including health care, were part of the job description.

“I think it would be a little strange if you had a finance chair that wasn’t sending people to work in the private sector after their experience working in his office. It would almost be a black eye on the committee chair, a sign that he wasn’t being taken very seriously and hadn’t established those connections,” Saldin said. “Maybe Washington shouldn’t work that way, but that is the way it works. It’s a testament to Max being effective in that role and a testament to him hiring good people. Otherwise it would be like if you were a Triple-A ball club and you never sent anyone to the majors.”

He continued, “I think in the real world it’s not a fair or unique criticism of Baucus. That’s an indictment on Capitol Hill in general.”

Sen. Max Baucus, former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Sen. Jon Tester and former superintendent of Glacier National Park Chas Cartwright, left to right, walk along the rocky bank where the North Fork and Middle Fork rivers converge north of Columbia Falls. – Flathead Beacon file photo

The Senate Finance Committee oversees some of the most critical functions of the federal government, including taxation and nearly all other revenue measures, as well as health programs under the Social Security Act like Medicare and Medicaid.

“One thing probably that a lot of people in Montana sort of underestimate was his power and influence as chair of the finance committee. These committees are not created equal, and finance is arguably the most important in the Senate. Holding that slot just automatically makes you one of the most powerful and influential people in Washington, and it allowed Baucus to have a big hand in shaping some of the big ticket legislation we have seen,” Saldin said.

His role as chairman put him in a unique position to influence major pieces of legislation, most notably the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, on which he worked as a key architect and is hugely unpopular in Montana.

“We call it ‘Obamacare’ but we might more accurately call it ‘Baucuscare,’” Saldin said.

Working with the handpicked, bipartisan “Gang of Six,” which consisted of three Democrats and three Republicans, Baucus strived to negotiate compromise and pass the health care reform bill, though he later criticized implementation of the legislation as premature, predicting famously that the rollout of the online marketplace would be a “huge train wreck.”

Baucus said he made the comment out of frustration, but that he remains optimistic the health care bill will one day be hailed a success, despite its initial warts. He related a story about a memorable conversation with the late U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield, during which Baucus stated his belief that, “so long as you do what you truly believe is right, the work will speak for itself.”

“He looked at me and he said, ‘yeah, but sometimes it takes a long time to be appreciated,’” Baucus said. “I think that’s the case with the Affordable Care Act. It’s not perfect, but it put some order to the chaos. I thought it would be appreciated within two or three years, but it will make it over time. Just more time than I expected.”

More than any piece of major legislation in recent history, Obamacare has been criticized by both the left and the right. Liberals contend it favors insurance companies and missed the mark by not including a single-payer system, while Republicans agree with Baucus’ assessment of a “train wreck.” (The senator is quick to point out that Social Security and Medicare were not popular initially, but they were amended and improved upon through the years).

Messina said the health care bill is one example of the enormous influence Baucus wielded as he worked to pass tangible policy in what’s been characterized as a “do-nothing” Congress.

“If you look at some of the biggest pieces of legislation in the past 15 years they have Max Baucus’ name on it,” Messina said. “He believed it was the right thing to do and it was in those times when I was most struck by his ability to stay focused and not care about the politics. There aren’t many members up there who do. I always thought Max was going to do what he thought was right.”

On the flight to Libby, his last as a United States Senator, the 72-year-old Baucus appeared relaxed and upbeat as he concluded one more “whistle-stop tour,” a multi-day, hopscotch junket that took the Helena native from Billings to the Crow Agency to Two Dot, where he enjoyed a shot with locals at the Two Dot Bar; then to Butte, Great Falls and Missoula, where Mayor John Engen bestowed him with a 100-pound Ponderosa; and then to Libby, where the nostalgia set in.

Circling the remote town, Baucus recalled a long-ago helicopter flight to Libby, where, as a freshman congressman he attended the dedication of the Libby Dam alongside former President Gerald Ford and Mansfield, a mentor and role model to Baucus, and the man who encouraged him to pursue a career in public service. Mansfield also went on to a diplomatic post, serving as ambassador to Japan.

Sen. Max Baucus looks over his notes as he flies from Missoula to Libby to speak at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease on Feb. 1. Tristan Scott | Flathead Beacon

“I remember flying over and pointing out the clear cuts to President Ford and explaining what they were. It was so much a part of the fabric of Montana,” Baucus said what he viewed as mismanaged timber resources.

Thirty-three years later, Baucus’ efforts to broker the coalition and allocate the money that led to the Montana Legacy Project would help set aside 310,000 acres of timber lands for public ownership, preserving prime hunting and fishing lands across the state, including parcels in Lincoln County.

In November 2006, with the defeat of Republican Sen. Conrad Burns by Democratic newcomer Jon Tester, Baucus attached a rider to a large tax and finance bill, which withdrew over 400,000 acres of federal mineral leases along the Rocky Mountain Front. Two years later, he passed a bill securing $250 million in federal bonds to advance the Montana Legacy Project, a historic purchase of Plum Creek Timber lands in the Swan and Blackfoot river valleys.

He continued to make conservation a top priority after sailing to re-election in 2008. In January 2011, he introduced the North Fork Protection Act to withdraw federal minerals leases from the North Fork Flathead River Watershed. In October, he introduced the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which would create 67,000 acres of new wilderness areas and include 208,000 acres in a conservation management area.

During a textured conversation with the Beacon that ranged from the environment to the difficulties of working in a Congress riven with ideological differences, Baucus’ commitment to safeguarding the North Fork, one of his first efforts as a lawmaker, figured prominently into the discussion.

The North Fork begins in British Columbia and flows 90 miles before joining the Flathead’s Middle Fork, and shortly after Baucus was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1974 a Toronto-based mining corporation proposed a massive open-pit coal-mining operation and power plant near Cabin Creek, a Canadian tributary of the North Fork, just six miles from the northwestern corner of Glacier Park.

With the wild, remote, and largely pristine nature of the valley at serious risk, Baucus flew to Toronto to object to the mine. In 1976 he succeeded in adding the three forks of the Flathead River to America’s National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and in 1988 he persuaded the International Joint Commission (IJC) to intervene to stop the Cabin Creek coal mine. The IJC found the mine would compromise the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, which forbids polluting the other country’s waters. Plans were dropped, and the IJC’s decision remains untested.

In the 2000s, the Cline Mining Corporation proposed removing a mountaintop near the North Fork’s headwaters in British Columbia to extract coal underneath. British Petroleum wanted to build hundreds of drilling pads in the region and a network of new pipelines and roads to extract coal-bed methane.

Baucus joined forces with a newly elected Tester and former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer to negotiate with Canadian government officials. The negotiations proved fruitful, and during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the premier of British Columbia, Gordon Campbell, announced a moratorium on mining and energy development on the Canadian side of the North Fork, and The Nature Conservancy agreed to compensate the mining companies.

Throughout the next year, Baucus and Tester work with oil and gas companies on the U.S. side and convinced them to withdraw 80 percent of their leased holdings on the North Fork.

Rich Moy, Commissioner to the IJC and a longtime partner to Baucus in protecting the North Fork, said the senator’s commitment was critical in preserving the pristine watershed.

“Senator Baucus was extremely instrumental in helping us protect both Glacier National Park and the North Fork of the Flathead River and to stop coal mining in British Columbia,” Moy said. “He maintained that persistence for 30 years and it was critical to maintain the Flathead Basin’s ecosystem.”

In his final year in office, Baucus lobbied fervently for passage of his North Fork Watershed Protection Act, a bill that would permanently prevent the U.S. government from offering new oil and gas leases. The bill passed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in June, receiving unanimous bipartisan support in a Congress riven with differences. Montana’s sole member of the House of Representatives, Republican Steve Daines, has also pushed for its passage and introduced a version of the bill in the House.

To Baucus, the bill would have provided a significant bookend to his career, but at the time of his confirmation the legislation appeared to have stalled in a Senate hotline, with just two senators entrenched in their opposition.

University of Montana geography professor Rick Graetz worked for decades with Baucus on “long-range” projects to protect Montana’s open spaces, and has been a major champion of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. He’s not optimistic that the bill will gain momentum in Baucus’ absence.

“I don’t think that bill is going to get a lot of life with Max gone from the Senate. He was the architect of it, and he always knew how to use Montana’s history of collaboration to get things done,” Graetz said.

As testament to Baucus’ passion for Montana’s outdoors, he recalled climbing numerous peaks with the senator, who still has a tall, athletic frame and regularly runs and hikes.

“Max is no slouch. We have done a lot of stuff in the Bob Marshall and the Crazy Mountains. We did the south face of Granite Peak, which is a very exposed route, and Max had no problem with it. He knows his way around Montana’s mountains,” Graetz said.

On the Libby trip, as the plane descended, Baucus studied a packet of notes. He was preparing to deliver on a promise he made 15 years earlier to a sickened Libby mine worker who helped draw worldwide attention to the ailing and all-but-forgotten community.

Decades ago, Les Skramstad received a death sentence in the dust-laden, asbestos-contaminated mill on Zonolite Mountain last operated by W.R. Grace and Co. In 1999, when news reports first linked asbestos from the Libby mine to the deaths and illnesses of residents, the no-nonsense Skramstad assumed the public face of the human tragedy.

That same year, Baucus arrived on the scene, pledging his willingness to help, to do whatever he could to bring relief. Always dubious, Skramstad met with Baucus, but before the politician left, he issued a stern caveat: “I’ll be keeping my eye on you,” he told Baucus.

“It really helped reinforce my commitment to Libby,” he said. “I never forgot Les.”

More than 3,000 people from Libby have been diagnosed with asbestos-related lung disease and some 400 have died. Even today, the numbers continue to grow.

Since making his promise to Skramstad, who died in 2007 of asbestos-related cancer, Baucus has returned to Libby more than 20 times and his aides have been back more than 100 times to help facilitate broader health care coverage.

Due to Baucus’ efforts, Libby residents diagnosed with the disease receive a unique benefit — they are covered under Medicare, which is usually reserved for U.S. citizens 65 or older.

Tanis Hernandez, administrative director of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD) in Libby, says decades after the mine was shuttered residents are still being screened for asbestos-related lung diseases. If they screen positive, they are eligible for the Medicare coverage.

As architect of the Affordable Care Act, Baucus squeezed the Medicare provision into the bill, so that citizens affected by contamination at Superfund sites declared a “public health emergency” would be covered. Libby is the only site ever declared a public health emergency in the country.

During the visit, he also announced expansion of a pilot program covering additional services not usually covered by Medicare, like home health assistance. The program was expanded to include 18 additional counties in Montana, Idaho and Washington.

“It’s been a labor of love,” he said. “Bringing justice to the people of Libby has meant so much to me personally.”

Having worked on the Hill for nearly four decades, Baucus rues the changes in the Senate culture, which he said was much less divided when he began his career in public service.

“The needle has moved over from substance to politics on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “It’s become much more partisan.”

It’s harder for members to work across the aisle, Baucus said, and he hopes his new post as envoy to China, which he’s visited eight times, will allow him to put his diplomatic chops to use, particularly his past efforts to break down trade barriers between China and the United States.

It will be years before Montanans agree on the essence of Baucus’ legacy. But there’s little debate about his influence. From crafting the controversial Affordable Care Act and providing a pipeline to K Street, to frustrating fellow Democrats through his willingness to compromise and stray from party lines, he endured barbed criticisms. But he worked to protect more than 1 million acres of public land in Montana, and two pieces of environmental legislation still breathe in Washington in his wake. He secured millions of dollars in seed money and grants to help Libby contend with a deadly fate, overhauled a Clean Air Act and passed multiple farm and highway bills.

“I feel like I’ve had the best job in the world representing Montana,” he said.

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