Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus said he's planning a full-court press to protect Montana's scenic gems before he retires in January 2015, including passing bills to designate new wilderness along the Rocky Mountain Front and to protect lands surrounding Glacier National Park from mineral development.
The six-term Montana Democrat yesterday said he wants to spend his final year and a half in Congress "serving Montana unconstrained by the demands of a campaign," a sign that he will seek to burnish his conservation record even as he tackles broader issues like overhauling the nation's tax code.
"I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work," Baucus said. "I will double down on legislation to permanently protect the American side of the North Fork watershed and keep the Rocky Mountain Front the way it is for future generations."
He also plans to "put everything I've got" into passing highway and farm bills, the latter of which could have lasting impacts on the conservation of private lands in the Treasure State.
Baucus' environmental legacy has been mixed.
He carries a 68 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters -- a relatively low mark for a Democrat -- due in part to his support of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and tax subsidies for the oil and gas industry.
But Baucus earned praise yesterday from conservationists and outdoor businesses for his support for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and his role in brokering the purchase of more than 310,000 acres of private forests in Montana from the Plum Creek Timber Co., an effort known as the Montana Legacy Project (MLP).
"For land conservation issues, he's been a consistent supporter; not just a consistent supporter but a great leader," said Robert Bendick, director of U.S. government relations for the Nature Conservancy. The group, along with the Trust for Public Land, worked closely with Baucus on MLP, which involved the purchase of about $490 million in lands.
More than $250 million was made available through conservation bonds orchestrated by Baucus, according to TNC.
Baucus, a former chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, was also a chief sponsor of the 1990 Clean Air Act, which required cuts in emissions that cause acid rain, urban smog and ozone depletion, according to his office.
Conservationists are optimistic Baucus will find a way to pass S. 364, which would designate about 67,000 acres of wilderness on Montana's Rocky Mountain Front while limiting road building and preserving current motorized access on an additional 208,000 acres.
"We think he's quite sincere about it," said Brian Sybert, executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association. "We do think Max has the political capital to get it done."
While the measure stalled in the last Congress, Baucus has seniority and influence among Senate leadership and has a potential ally in Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), said Robert Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana, Missoula.
Daines has worked more closely with Montana's Democratic senators than his predecessor, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), and appears more likely to support conservation. Daines' backing would be key if Baucus hopes to get his proposals through the Republican-led House, Saldin said.
Daines late last month announced he planned to support Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester's (D-Mont.) "North Fork Watershed Protection Act," and he held a listening session in Choteau to gauge public input on Baucus' Rocky Mountain Front bill, though he has yet to take a position on it (Greenwire, April 3).
Barrett Kaiser, a partner at Hilltop Public Solutions and former communications director for Baucus, said he expects the senator to "go to the mat" on the Rocky Mountain Front.
"This comes from a deeply personal place for Max Baucus," Kaiser said. "He loves to hike, he loves to be outside and he understands Montanans' close connection to the land."
Passage of both bills will depend in large part on whether senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee can assemble bipartisan public lands packages.
As chairman of Finance -- arguably the Senate's most powerful panel -- Baucus also holds the political keys to securing full, mandatory funding for LWCF, which is used to acquire public lands and secure conservation easements on private lands. Baucus is chief sponsor of S. 338, which would fund LWCF at its maximum annual $900 million -- about three times its current level.
While many Republicans argue land acquisitions are too costly at a time of high deficits, LWCF will be crucial to completing the Montana Legacy Project and other Montana conservation projects.
"Delivering the portion of offshore oil and gas revenues to land conservation that Montanans have long been promised would be a huge victory for the state and a crowning achievement to Senator Baucus' public service," said Matt Lee-Ashley, a former Interior Department official during the Obama administration who now works as an independent consultant.
Lawmakers including Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, chairman of the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, have suggested that mandatory funding for LWCF could be paired with an extension of Secure Rural Schools and Payments in Lieu of Taxes, which provide payments to counties with large blocks of tax-emept federal lands.
Baucus has said he will work hard this year to extend SRS, and it's possible he will explore marrying the two proposals.
Baucus may also explore attaching his bills to a comprehensive tax reform package, one environmental lobbyist suggested. Baucus succeeded in attaching tax credit language to a previous tax package that encouraged oil and gas firms to relinquish leases in the Rocky Mountain Front.
"The larger question is whether there will be any tax legislation," the lobbyist said.
Baucus' decision not to seek re-election amplified the focus on his tax reform efforts, which he highlighted in his resignation statement among his top areas of focus for the remainder of his tenure. As Finance chairman, Baucus has been meeting with his House counterpart, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), and senators from both parties in an effort to overhaul the tax code for the first time in a generation.
"Max has made clear that his commitment to comprehensive tax reform that lowers rates and makes the code simpler and fairer for our families and job creators remains a top priority," Camp said in a statement yesterday. "I couldn't agree more, and I share his vision for enacting real tax reform this Congress."
The thrust of tax reform is an attempt to eliminate various deductions and credits in order to bring down the overall tax rate. And the process is being closely watched throughout the energy industry as oil and gas companies seek to preserve their suite of deductions that allow them to write off drilling costs, and as renewable energy developers lobby to maintain tax credits supporting a variety of technologies.
The Finance Committee has not done much this year to flesh out the debate on energy tax incentives, but Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a member of the committee, says the energy sector will be the focus of a closed-door committee meeting tomorrow.
Colleagues predicted that Baucus would now be able to focus more of his attention on the matter.
"What this decision does, though, is it enables him to focus more directly on major issues, including tax reform ... without the distraction of a campaign, just the time you spend fundraising and campaigning," Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a fellow Finance Committee member, said yesterday.
Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah), the ranking member on Finance, said he was sorry to hear Baucus would be leaving the Senate and that he remained committed to working with the chairman to get tax reform across the finish line before the end of next year.
"I'd like to see him retire with that accomplishment under his belt," Hatch told reporters yesterday. "Of course, that's going to be a long, hard slog, but it can be done."
Baucus' impending exit also provoked a flurry of speculation yesterday over who would take his place atop the Finance Committee, perhaps the most powerful panel in Congress, with its broad jurisdiction of taxes, trade and entitlement programs.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is next in line to claim the Finance gavel if Democrats keep control of the chamber. Wyden declined to comment yesterday when asked about his interest in the chairmanship.
"Senator Wyden would play a very large role on energy if he became Finance chairman, as well, because obviously there is significant bipartisan support for rewriting existing energy tax incentives, and his combined energy and tax expertise would be ideal for that purpose if Finance and Ways and Means don't get to it in this Congress," said Paul Bledsoe, a former Senate aide who now is a senior fellow on energy at the German Marshall Fund.
Wyden is currently third in seniority on Finance behind Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), but Rockefeller is also retiring. After Wyden, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is next in line for the gavel.
If Wyden did take over as Finance chairman, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a moderate who strongly supports her state's oil and gas industry, would be in line for the Energy gavel. Landrieu could bring a return to bipartisan energy legislation, Bledsoe said, although Wyden has plenty of time remaining in the 113th Congress to make his mark on the issue.
But Landrieu faces a tough re-election campaign next year; her seat is a top GOP target this cycle. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is behind her in line for the Energy gavel.
Wyden, who ascended to the top of the Energy Committee this year, gets along well with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the ranking member, and has started pursuing bipartisan legislation aimed at promoting hydropower and energy efficiency, among other measures (see related story).
"Wyden's still got his whole chairmanship at energy in front of him, so he's got an ambitious agenda," Bledsoe said.
Mont. Senate race
In the meantime, Baucus' decision to retire puts the Montana Senate seat into play -- adding to a list of open-seat races created by Democratic retirements in West Virginia, Iowa, South Dakota, New Jersey and Michigan and GOP retirements in Georgia and Nebraska -- and both parties immediately sought to lay claim to it yesterday.
While Democrats believe they can retain the seat, pointing to Tester's success in turning back a challenge from Rehberg last year and the party's continued control of the governor's office, Republicans note that President Obama lost the state by 12 points.
But even as the GOP seeks to pick up six seats and gain a majority in the Senate, Republicans have yet to recruit a top-shelf name in the Treasure State.
While a pair of GOP state lawmakers -- state Rep. Champ Edmunds and former state Senate Majority Leader Corey Stapleton -- have already declared their candidacies, observers expect more high-profile candidates to enter the fray, potentially including Daines or state Attorney General Tim Fox.
Candidates for both parties will need to generate significant funds to compete in Montana, where Tester and Rehberg spent a combined $23 million and third-party groups pumped more than $25 million into the contest.
To date, Edmunds has raised $6,000 and Stapleton has not filed a fundraising report. Daines raised $1.8 million in his first House bid last cycle and pulled in $249,000 in the first quarter of this year. He reported nearly $180,000 in the bank at the end of March.
Even with his war chest of nearly $4.9 million, however, Baucus himself wouldn't have faced an easy re-election to a seventh term and might even have faced a primary challenge from former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D).
With Baucus' decision to forgo the Senate seat he has held since 1978, Schweitzer immediately became the Democratic heir apparent, although the former governor avoided committing to the race yesterday.
Schweitzer told the Los Angeles Times he first wants to complete his work helping a New York investment fund gain control of Montana-based Stillwater Mining Co.
Schweitzer, who is a minor shareholder in the company, has worked alongside the New York-based hedge fund Clinton Group, which argues the company should not have pursued expansions into Argentina and Canada. A shareholder meeting is set for May 2.
"I'll look around once I climb that mountain," Schweitzer told the newspaper. "There should be a pretty good view from there. I'll look around and see what I do next."
Schweitzer added that he is in no hurry to leave Montana: "There's not a sound to be heard, unless it's the howl of a wolf or the yip of a coyote. Life is good."
The former governor, who made an unsuccessful bid against then-Sen. Conrad Burns (R) in 2000, is also mentioned as a potential 2016 presidential candidate.