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Lobbyists Will Watch Baucus’ Every Move

Health care reform is not just for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee anymore.

The Senate Finance Committee may be known for its influence over the tax code, but Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is already well on his way to demonstrating the panel’s full power, taking on the biggest legislative issue facing Congress right now — health care.

Since the presidential election, Baucus has moved to center stage, coming out of the blocks quickly asserting the committee’s jurisdiction. Besides huddling with other key lawmakers on the issue, Baucus has been holding stakeholder meetings with the private sector on health care reform.

With HELP Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) undergoing treatment for brain cancer and missing a significant amount of time at work, Baucus has emerged as perhaps the key power player on health reform in the Senate. Health care lobbyists are paying close attention to what Baucus says and what his committee does.

“It’s going to be the center of the action,— said Anne Urban, a lobbyist at Venn Strategies who was a legislative aide to then-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.).

As the pressure to enact comprehensive reform mounts, Baucus’ role has only grown.

The committee is likely to try to produce legislation before the August recess and get something out of the Senate before the end of the year.

Kennedy and Baucus have pledged to work together on health care reform but are operating largely on parallel tracks.

“Health care is the really high priority item that is going to result in some legislation by the end of the year, and therefore the committee needs to really step up to the plate and work on it,— said Lindy Paull, a former Joint Committee on Taxation chief of staff.

But health care is hardly the only thing on the committee’s agenda.

Baucus is “very good at multitasking,— said Paull, who is now a lobbyist at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “They have to continue to work on the proposals that the new president has put into his budget.—

Besides focusing on health care, the Finance Committee is expected to take on the estate tax before the end of the year.

“They have to do the estate tax, can’t let it go to January 2010,— said Ken Kies, a tax lobbyist at Federal Policy Group.

But getting that done could be tougher than expected. As the clock winds down to the 2010 expiration of the estate tax, Republicans will have additional leverage, according to Kies.

The committee is also expected to take up offshore tax issues that have taken on greater focus in the tough economic climate.

“Max is under no illusions,— said Paul Equale, a consultant who worked in the insurance industry. “He doesn’t want to be the sherpa of tax increases, but with [Senate Budget Chairman] Kent Conrad [D-N.D.] he is a voice of concern in the Democratic Caucus regarding the deficit.—

Additionally, the committee has a large oversight role. That role has already played out with the committee holding hearings on the bank bailout funds.

Still, Baucus is the key to what happens in the committee, lobbyists say. He ultimately may determine whether health care is done under reconciliation, “an idea he is noticeably cool about,— Equale said.

Getting anything done will largely depend on whether Baucus can find bipartisan consensus on the committee. Baucus is well-known for meeting with ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and his counterparts in the House on a weekly basis.

“It’s all about 60 votes,— said one Democratic lobbyist of Baucus’ mindset on the committee. “He tries to cut the deal in the committee before it goes to the floor.—

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