Baucus Budget Vote Casts Doubt on Democratic Plan

Senate Finance chairman’s dissent on floor vote may signal resistance on tax increases until after fiscal showdown is resolved

Posted March 25, 2013 at 12:32pm

A defiant stand by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus against his party’s budget blueprint has raised new questions about the Democrats’ agenda for tax overhaul and deficit reduction.

The Montana lawmaker was one of four Democrats who voted against the fiscal 2014 budget resolution (S Con Res 8) adopted on a 50-49 vote in the early morning hours of March 23. His vote was of particular interest since he would be in charge of writing the tax overhaul and revenue increases the budget resolution envisions.

As the floor vote began, the six-term senator circled in front of the floor manager’s lectern to consult face-to-face with Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash. After a brief chat, Baucus walked toward the front of the chamber and registered his dissent with a downward sweep of his hand.

Three other Democrats also up for re-election in 2014 — Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — voted against the budget resolution. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota said their “yes” votes indicated merely that they wanted to encourage negotiations with the House.

As he left the Capitol, Baucus made it clear the Murray budget does not represent his own fiscal outlook. “It was not sufficiently balanced. It was too lopsided,” Baucus said. “I think $1 trillion in tax increases is too much.”

The budget resolution directs the Finance Committee to prepare legislation that would increase revenue by $975 billion over 10 years. Nonbinding language endorses elimination of some tax breaks for corporations and upper-income taxpayers.

It is widely assumed that Baucus is resistant to such a tax increase for purposes of deficit reduction and replacement of automatic spending cuts because he wants to use whatever revenue-raisers that can be agreed on to offset the cost of reducing rates as part of the broad tax overhaul he has been preparing.

A senior Democratic aide predicted that Baucus will not produce tax overhaul legislation until after the next potential fiscal showdown is resolved. The Treasury’s borrowing limit, which was suspended earlier, will be reimposed on May 19 at that date’s level of indebtedness. Congressional Republicans may insist on budgetary concessions from President Barack Obama as a condition for raising the debt limit further. The issue will probably need to be resolved before Congress begins its August recess.

Baucus’ vote against a budget resolution calling for tax increases puts him once again at odds with his party’s liberal wing and Senate Democratic leaders. Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said he was disappointed by Baucus’ vote.

But David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University, said the vote will give Baucus a basis on which to rebut GOP attempts to portray him as an Obama ally in next year’s campaign. “Sen. Baucus is going to do things that are broadly popular,” Parker said. “He’ll do things so that he can tell Montanans they won’t have a higher tax burden.”

Parker noted that Baucus’ approval rating was only 45 percent in a February poll but predicted the senator will not face a primary challenge from former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Two Republicans are already preparing to oppose Baucus. Champ Edwards is a state representative and Cory Stapleton is a financial adviser and former state senator. Other potential GOP challengers include Rep. Steve Daines, state Attorney General Tim Fox and ex-Gov. Marc Racicot, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Baucus has begun bipartisan, closed-door meetings of his committee to lay groundwork for a tax overhaul.

The senator has a mixed record when it comes to cutting deals on major legislation. Liberals criticized Baucus for prolonging the health care battle by insisting on lengthy bipartisan talks in his committee during the 111th Congress. Baucus eventually became a strong supporter of the health care overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said Baucus remains a close ally of Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and predicted that Baucus will persuade party leaders and Obama to accept less additional revenue in a deficit reduction plan.

And Baker said Baucus is unlikely to pay much of a price within the Democratic caucus for his independence. “The purge mentality even among liberal Democrats has it limits,” Baker said. “I think he got a bye on that vote. They allowed Baucus to take a walk.”