HELENA — Sen. Max Baucus, surrounded by family and friends at his son’s home in Helena, said Friday that coming home to Montana is “what my decision to not seek re-election is all about” — but that there’s still work to do in Washington, D.C.
“I’m not turning out to pasture,” said the 71-year-old Democratic senator, who announced Tuesday that he won’t run for re-election in 2014. “Our country and our state face enormous challenges.”
Baucus, who has been in Congress since 1975 and the Senate since 1979, said he’ll be working hard on issues like reforming the U.S. tax code and making sure the Affordable Care Act, which he helped write, is properly implemented.
“The tax code has not been brought up to date since 1986 and the world has changed dramatically,” he said. “We have to make our American companies more competitive. …
“The goal should be to eliminate a lot of deductions and credits and exclusions, to free people up, so they use less time with lawyers and accountants to figure out what’s in the (code) and spend more time running their businesses.”
Baucus chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which oversees the tax code. The panel already has been working toward possible overhaul of the tax code, and Baucus has appointed an advisory council of Montanans as a sounding board for tax reform ideas.
Baucus said he hopes Congress can reach an agreement by the end of the year on a package that simplifies the code and uses any additional revenue to lower rates for families and businesses and help reduce the federal deficit.
Baucus shocked the political world and Montana on Tuesday when he announced his pending retirement, although he said Friday that he’d been thinking and talking about it with his family and close advisers for several months.
He had already raised nearly $5 million for his re-election campaign and, so far, had no prominent challenger.
His departure makes Montana’s 2014 U.S. Senate race a wide-open contest and a probable national battleground in Democrats’ fight to retain majority control.
Democrats eyeing the race include former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, state Auditor Monica Lindeen, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and Stephanie Schriock, a former campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
If Schweitzer gets into the race, however, he would be a clear, early front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
When asked Friday about a successor or Schweitzer’s possible candidacy, Baucus said it’s not up to him to say who should next hold the seat.
“It’s up to the people, and I have high regard for, and trust in the people, that they’ll look (the candidates) over carefully,” he said. “And it’s awfully early.”
Two Republicans already are running for the seat: Former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, of Billings, and state Rep. Champ Edmunds, of Missoula.
However, two prominent Republicans have said they’re thinking about entering the race: U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, who won his seat in November, and former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who lost the 2012 Senate race to Tester.
Baucus said Friday that he and his wife, Melodee Hanes, will be living in Bozeman once he leaves the Senate at the end of 2014.
Baucus was flanked Friday by his wife and her son Joey Kirk, and his own son, Zeno Baucus, and his wife, Stephanie. Baucus spoke to reporters in front of the home of his late mother, Jean Baucus, who died in 2011. Zeno Baucus and his wife recently moved into the home on Helena’s upper west side.
Baucus said he began thinking about retiring from the Senate as he traveled the state in the past few months, seeing many places he wanted to spend more time enjoying.
He also said he owed a great debt of gratitude to the Montanans who’d supported and voted for him over the years: “To the people of Montana, my friends, thank you, thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”