The Verdict on Vouchers

Observers marveling at President George W. Bush's ability to push a radical agenda through a closely divided Congress have tended to attribute the administration's success to the impressive party discipline within the Republican congressional caucus. And impressive it is -- both historically and, especially, in comparison to the anarchic behavior of the Democrats during the same period.

Nevertheless, the Bush agenda of steep tax cuts, large spending increases targeted mainly at friendly corporate interests and aggressive militarism has provoked a steady stream of defections from a shifting combination of moderates, deficit hawks and traditional foreign-policy realists. As a result, literally none of the president's signature initiatives -- from tax cuts to the resolution authorizing war in Iraq to the Medicare bill -- garnered sufficient GOP support to pass without cooperation from some Democrats, cooperation that the White House has largely succeeded in obtaining.

Among the defectors, Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) has tended to attract the lion's share of media attention for his florid denunciations of his ostensible party. But the practical effects of Miller's histrionics have been rather limited compared with the betrayals of his more low-key colleague Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). As the ranking member (and, for a period, chairman) of the Finance Committee, arguably the Senate's most powerful, Baucus, who underwent successful brain surgery on Jan. 9, has not only voted for many pieces of Republican-backed legislation but actually taken the lead in authoring much of the president's domestic-policy agenda. During the 2001 tax-cut debate, Baucus cut a deal with committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and the White House to co-sponsor a slightly watered-down version of the president's proposal. In doing so, he not only gave the GOP his vote but, more importantly, his support for the tax cut effectively handed the White House the staff and other committee resources under his control.

Fellow Democrats were even more aggrieved, however, by Baucus' behavior during the Medicare battle with which Congress closed last year's session. The Senate initially passed a compromise bill with support from Republicans and some liberal Democrats like Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), while the House put forward a much more partisan piece of legislation on a narrow vote. A conference committee composed of members of both chambers was convened, but the Republican leadership, in a sharp break from precedent, said that though Democrats could be officially appointed to the committee, none would be invited to the meetings where the substantive negotiations would take place and the actual bill be written. None, that is, except for Baucus and the similarly cooperative John Breaux of Louisiana, who will retire at the end of the year.

By lending this farce a veneer of bipartisan credibility, Baucus and Breaux essentially denied the Democrats what was not only their best chance of defeating the bill in question but the party's last hope of putting a stop to a long string of Republican provocations aimed at reducing the minority party to window-dressing status.

As Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute told The Washington Post in December, Democratic senators with any concern for the viability of the party would have said, "[I]f you don't let in Tom Daschle [D-S.D.] -- our leader, elected by the Senate to be in the room -- then we're not going in the room" and insisted that the Republicans at least abide by the rules.

Notably, Baucus' behavior has drawn condemnation not just from liberals but from centrist Democrats outside of government who can normally be found extolling the virtues of such willingness to work across party lines. Jeff Lemieux, a health-policy analyst at the Democratic Leadership Council-affiliated Progressive Policy Institute, says that during the negotiations, "What the policy actually was really became secondary to all sorts of other things," and it became apparent that Baucus was "more interested in making a deal than making good policy." A December editorial in The New Republic called on the Democratic leadership to consider removing Baucus from his position on the committee, or at least to threaten to do so if his behavior doesn't improve. Despite a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Baucus among other Hill Democrats at the moment -- he not only backed bad policy but also handed a substantial political victory to the president heading into an election year -- such a move remains distinctly unlikely.

The practice of assigning committee leadership positions on the basis of a strict seniority rule is very much in the interests of the powerful senators who already hold top spots, and Daschle would have little credibility in pushing for a break with precedent in light of his own defection on the recent energy bill, the lone Bush initiative that Democrats, in coalition with Republican dissenters, have actually been able to block.

Many Democrats, moreover, regard Baucus' heresies as simply the price that must be paid to keep his Montana Senate seat out of Republican hands. One Senate staffer who worked against the Medicare bill said she was "resigned" to such behavior as long as the GOP has the ability to set the agenda; senators, after all, don't dare oppose the initiatives of a president who remains popular in their home states.

The excuse suffers from a near total lack of supporting evidence. A Dec. 8-10 poll by the Billings Gazette revealed that an underwhelming 41 percent of Montanans approve of the new law -- more, to be sure, than the 30 percent who disapprove, but hardly a force a popular incumbent is incapable of resisting. The vote came, moreover, at a time when Baucus would not need to face the voters again for nearly five years, hardly a moment that demands a tactical shift to the right.

According to Gene Fenderson, executive secretary of the Montana Progressive Labor Caucus, "Max has always had a tendency to move to the right whenever his election comes up, but after this last election he just stayed there." Nothing in recent Montana political history indicates that Baucus is particularly vulnerable. The 2002 midterms saw Baucus win a crushing 63-to-32 victory over state Sen. Mike Taylor, with Baucus outspending Taylor's largely self-financed campaign by nearly a 4-to-1 margin. Baucus' underhanded television ads insinuating that Taylor is gay played a role in the campaign, but as early as June, Republicans privately admitted that the race was a long shot. Even his closest race, in 1996, was not especially tight, with Baucus beating then-Lt. Gov. Dennis Rehberg, whom he grossly outspent, by a 5-point margin. In 2000, by contrast, incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns won by just 3 points over Democrat Brian Schweitzer, who ran on a rural populist platform well to the left of Baucus' recent stands.

In short, while Montana is certainly not the most progressive state in the nation, it's not unwinnable either. Bill Clinton scored a victory there in 1992 (with some assistance from a heavy Ross Perot vote).

Pat Williams, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1979 to 1997 with what he calls a "western-liberal voting record," agrees that nothing in the state precludes a less conservative Democratic Party. "I was elected more consecutive times to the House than anyone in the history of Montana," he says. "To me that always demonstrated that a Democrat does not have to masquerade as a Republican in Montana."

The Democrats seem to be losing Baucus due more to a lack of pressure from the left than to overwhelming pressure from the right. Jerry Driscoll, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, precisely the sort of organization that one would expect to stand up against tax cuts for the wealthy and for a Medicare reform that gives assistance to seniors rather than pharmaceutical companies, says Baucus "did the right thing" in both instances and wishes more Democrats had supported the Medicare bill. Driscoll's son Jay works in Baucus' office in Washington. Since Jerry Driscoll took over leadership of the local union movement in the spring of 2001, he has aligned the group with local extractive industries and moved to the right on key state and federal political issues.

Fenderson's Progressive Labor Caucus was established soon after to try to restore the voice of Montana's left. Now other liberals are growing restive. The central committee of the Democratic Party in Lewis and Clark County, containing the state capital of Helena, passed a resolution condemning Baucus' Medicare vote. And Lewis and Clark County party Chairwoman Brenda Wahler speaks of the "frustration that a lot of progressive Democrats have had with Max" and the sense "that he just really needs to listen to his base." Liberals hope to convince Baucus that a depressed base does not serve his electoral interests.

Jim Murry, the now-retired longtime leader of the Montana AFL-CIO, says he "know[s] a lot of Democrats that absolutely refused to vote for [Baucus] last time," and thinks there may be more next time around.

Nevertheless, though Baucus has proved remarkably adept at infuriating liberals, small-government conservatives and centrist wonks alike, he remains the state's most popular politician, which, combined with his close ties to local business and labor groups, renders his position quite secure.

At the end of the day, the Senate Democratic leadership probably remains the only force capable of reining Baucus in. Currently Daschle and Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), both up for re-election this year, are preoccupied by their own campaigns. But if both are successful, they'll have the opportunity to throw more muscle behind party discipline and may be able to replicate some of the success Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has had on this front in the House. If not, Baucus will soldier on as is -- a low-profile but highly powerful maverick, charting his own destructive course through a polarized nation at a time when the stakes have never been higher.

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