HELENA — Sen. Max Baucus’ disclosure last week that he recommended his girlfriend as a possible nominee for U.S. attorney earlier this year may not cause him much political heartburn, a pair of political scientists said Monday.
It’s also not likely to hurt him within the U.S. Senate, where members tend to be protective of each other and seldom impose much, if any, discipline for ethical lapses, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“If it was the country, as a whole, he might be damaged goods, but, within the culture of the Senate, it will probably be tolerated by many,” Sabato said.
“It’s a club. It still has aspects of a club, and they tend to take care of one another.”
Baucus, D-Mont., acknowledged on Friday that he had recommended Melodee Hanes, director of his Montana offices, for nomination as U.S. attorney in Montana and that they’d had a romantic relationship since the middle of last year.
Hanes withdrew her name from consideration as U.S. attorney in March. She left Baucus’ office in June to take a job at the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C. She and Baucus now live together in the nation’s capital.
Baucus, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, also happens to be in the middle of managing the Senate’s major health-reform bill on the Senate floor.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and at least one Republican senator said last weekend that the questions raised about the Hanes recommendation shouldn’t affect the health-care debate or Baucus’ role in it.
Baucus said the same on Monday, telling the Gazette State Bureau that several of his fellow senators have told him since Friday that he’s going a great job on the health-care debate.
“They said, ‘I saw that article in the paper that’s just a bunch of you-know-what,’ ” Baucus said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele on Saturday called for Senate Ethics Committee investigation of Baucus’ actions.
If history is any indication, that avenue of inquiry shouldn’t pose any problem for Baucus, Sabato said.
He pointed to the recent cases of Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho (ticketed for soliciting sex in a men’s bathroom at the Minneapolis airport), Sen. John Ensign of Nevada (who admitted an affair with a campaign staffer) and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana (who was linked to a prostitution ring in Washington, D.C.), each of whom either faced no discipline from the panel or, at worst, a public admonition.
The Ethics Committee, comprised of three Democrats and three Republicans, can act on complaints or initiate its own investigation, on a vote of the panel. Yet the committee’s actions are shrouded in secrecy, operating under a “non-disclosure” policy that doesn’t allow divulging of whether an investigation even exists.
Jim Lopach, professor of political science at the University of Montana, said Monday that he doubts the Hanes flap will cause any problems for Baucus, in the Senate or future re-election races.
“He might be legitimately criticized for a lapse of good judgment with respect for his recommendation of Ms. Hanes for the U.S. attorney position, but he was commendably forthcoming in his explanation about his personal relationship with her,” Lopach said.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any fallout.”
Baucus, 67, isn’t up for re-election until 2014. He’s been a U.S. senator since 1979.
“My guess is that, as always, it will be up to the people of Montana,” Sabato said. “It’s up to the electorate in the end. The Senate is not going to do much disciplining of its own members.”