WASHINGTON - Rarely has a high-ranking senator provoked an angrier response from his own party colleagues than Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., did Friday in cutting a deal on a $1.35 trillion tax cut package with Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
Aides said most Democrats opposed the plan as too big and too tilted toward the rich, and appealed to Baucus to wait until he could hear from the full Democratic caucus early next week. He declined, saying deadlines for action were too pressing. "A great many members were upset," said a Democratic aide.
Baucus, the ranking minority-party member on the finance panel, has long walked a shaky tightrope in the Senate and Montana as a Democrat from an increasingly Republican state - almost an endangered species in the overwhelmingly GOP Rocky Mountain region.
President Bush carried Montana by 26 percentage points last year and Baucus is up for re-election next year, putting his political survival needs at odds with the role he assumed this year as the senior Democrat on the committee that is handling Bush's tax cut plan. Committee leaders are generally expected to heed the overwhelming view of their caucus, especially on a high-stakes political issue.
After nearly a quarter-century in the Senate, Baucus, 59, is well-liked by his colleagues but sometimes appears awkward and at a loss for words. As he has done previously on issues such as cattle grazing and mining, he is inclined to walk away from his party when Montana interests are at stake - not uncommon in the Senate but more pronounced than normal in Baucus' case. He has a motto on his office: "Montana Comes First."
Many of Baucus' more liberal colleagues had been wary from the start that Baucus might be more interested than they were in dealmaking with Bush on taxes, and their wariness increased when Baucus was one of only five Democrats to vote Thursday for a budget blueprint that paves the way for the tax cut. But it turned to anger when Baucus briefed them on the emerging deal later in the day.
"The majority of the caucus would have preferred that he wait at least until next week to enter an agreement so he could have an opportunity to hear from the entire caucus and perhaps be influenced by their sentiments, which run counter to what has been agreed to," said a senior Democratic aide. Among other things, the aide said, Democrats want more tax relief for low- and moderate-income taxpayers.
Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., who had urged Baucus to wait until after the Democrats' weekly lunch next Tuesday, issued a statement late Friday that was highly critical of the plan but referred to it only as "Senator Grassley's proposal," ignoring the fact that it was presented as a joint endeavor at a news conference only a short time before.
At the news conference, Baucus defended his decision, saying he believed Democrats could "get more by being at the table" and reaching a compromise than by refusing to deal. "I believe I am doing what I think is best for the United States of America and the state of Montana," he said.
He quelled earlier Democratic concerns that he would join Grassley in resisting all amendments to the proposal in committee and on the Senate floor, saying amendments would be welcome. But he also made clear he was "not speaking for the Democratic caucus."
An aide said Baucus called Daschle right after a three-hour meeting Friday morning with Grassley to wrap up the agreement and plans to call all Democratic colleagues over the weekend.
Baucus comes from a wealthy and well-known Montana ranching family and got into politics 30 years ago when he won a seat in the state legislature. He was elected to the House in 1974 and went on to the Senate in 1978. He was reelected easily in 1984 and 1990 but had a close call in 1996.
Baucus had been ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, where he played a key role in safe-drinking water and other environmental legislation. After becoming top Democrat on the Finance Committee, succeeding retired Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., he played a major role in passing legislation last year to extend permanent normal trading relations to China.