WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, the powerful Senate Finance chairman who steered the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) into law but broke with his party on gun control, said Tuesday he will not run for re-election.
“I don’t want to die here with my boots on. There is life beyond Congress,” the 71-year-old Baucus said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Baucus, who arrived in Washington as a member of the 1974 Watergate class in the House and has been a fixture in the Senate since 1979, said the decision was hard.
“It was probably the most difficult decision in my life,” Baucus said.
He faced a tough re-election bid next year, with opposition to PPACA in his state taking a toll on his approval ratings.
A Democrat with an independent streak, Baucus supported the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and PPACA, which became law in 2010. He broke with his party this year to oppose both the Senate Democratic budget blueprint and a hotly fought effort to beef up background checks for gun purchases.
Baucus, who helped write PPACA, stunned administration officials last week when he told the president’s health care chief that he thought the law was headed for a “train wreck” because of bumbling implementation.
“I just see a huge train wreck coming down,” Baucus told Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Baucus was the first top Democrat to publicly voice fears about the rollout of PPACA, designed to bring coverage to some 30 million uninsured people through a mix of government programs and tax credits for private insurance. Polls show that Americans remain confused by PPACA, and even many uninsured people are skeptical they will be helped by benefits that start next year.
In the interview Tuesday, Baucus said that successful rollout of PPACA will be a top priority, along with tax reform and the farm bill, until he leaves office.
“I want to make sure health care is implemented, and implemented very well,” he said.
Baucus’ retirement opens up an opportunity for Republicans to claim a Senate seat in a state where GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney easily defeated Obama by 12 percentage points last year. But Democrats have proved resilient in Montana, with Sen. Jon Tester winning re-election last year. The election of Steve Bullock last year is the third term in a row in which Democrats have held the governorship.
Former two-term Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer indicated an interest in the race in an interview with The Associated Press.
“The opportunity to try and get the country moving again like we did in Montana, that’s appealing,” Schweitzer said. “I’m a fixer.”
Tester, who learned of Baucus’ plans on Monday in their weekly meeting, said the state’s senior senator told him he wanted to return to Montana, and that if he waited until the end of his next term he would be nearly 80.
Baucus, in the interview with the AP, said: “Been here 40 years. No regrets. It is time to do something different.”
Tester, in looking at the list of Senate deaths and retirements, surmised that Baucus probably considered the drastically altered Senate lineup. Sens. Tom Harkin D-Iowa, and Carl Levin, D-Mich., have announced plans to retire; Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, died within the last five years.
“These guys are warhorses who’ve been through the battle. They know what it takes to get legislation passed,” Tester said.
Asked how hard it would be for Democrats to hold the seat, Tester said, “Look, it’s Montana. You’ve got to go out to the voters. You’ve got to talk to voters. I think voters in Montana are less persuaded by party and more persuaded by substance.”
Republican campaign officials, who last week seized upon Baucus’ comments on PPACA, sought to tar other Democratic Senate candidates in a statement Tuesday responding to Baucus’ decision.