He’s been called the sixth-most-powerful man in Washington, and when U.S. Sen. Max Baucus unexpectedly announced his retirement Tuesday, political lights dimmed on many Montana interests.
“When Sen. Baucus retires, there is going to be a deep hole that is going to be hard to fill, for the whole agriculture community and the nation,” said Bing Von Bergen, a Moccasin farmer and National Association of Wheat Growers president.
“Sen. Baucus has been one of the strongest supporters of agriculture that we’ve ever had in the nation," he said. "He’s one of the strongest leaders we’ve had in the nation.”
News of Baucus’ decision not to seek re-election in 2014 was met with disbelief in NAWG’s Washington office Tuesday, Von Bergen said. Across Montana and the Rocky Mountain West, reactions were similar among those who worked with Baucus.
“Max lives and breathes Montana. Every day he works for the people of Montana in the Senate,” said Ken Salazar, the former U.S. Secretary of Interior who left office April 12. “I’ve watched him be the leader in the Senate protecting the Flathead region and the ranching way of life in Montana.”
Baucus was key in working through the Crow Water Settlement Act of 2010, Salazar said. The act resolved a 30-plus-year dispute with the federal government and cleared the way for safe-drinking-water measures and rehabilitation of the Crow Irrigation Project. Few lawmakers understand the importance of water in the West as Baucus does, he said.
Land Tawney, of Missoula, founding board member of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, credited Baucus for securing 320,000 acres of Plum Creek timber land for conservation, a $250 million deal that wouldn’t have happened without the creation of Legacy Project funding in the 2008 farm bill, which Baucus authored as Senate Agriculture Committee chairman.
“That to me is a perfect example of how in that position he can actually do something,” Tawney said. “I would also say that on the North Fork (of the Flathead River), on both sides of the border, he’s been a liaison between Canada and the United States protecting the watershed up there.”
The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, responsible for opening up 75 percent of the fishing access across Montana is another example of Baucus’ work, Tawney said.
Near Billings, Dale Bilyeu, manager of the Huntley Irrigation Project, credited Baucus with forcing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to respond quickly to the community’s need for more than $1.9 million in irrigation repairs on the Huntley canal after the 2011 floods.
Baucus’ influence on highway funding has also made a difference in Montana, said Al Ekbald of Montana AFL-CIO.
“Not only has his work kept hundreds of thousands of Montanans employed in the construction industry, in good middle-class jobs with benefits, but the highways he funded were pathways for tourists who brought economic stimulus to Montana’s rural communities too," Ekbald said. "As Montana's longest-serving U.S. senator, his years in service and accomplishments deserve to be recognized."
Carl Tobias, a former University of Montana law professor now teaching at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said he’s hopeful Baucus’ retirement won’t change efforts to nominate and confirm replacements for two federal judgeships in the state.
“I think it will be a high priority. I think he’s set it all in motion. He’s still got plenty of chits he can call in. He’ll try to shepherd it through,” said Tobias.
As Montana’s senior senator, Baucus is recommending state District Judge Susan Watters to replace Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull in Billings and Montana Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris to replace Senior U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon in Great Falls.
The White House has not yet nominated candidates for the positions, which are subject to confirmation by the Senate. “I’m hopeful before Memorial Day they (the candidates) will be nominated,” Tobias said.
Montana will lose all of Baucus’ seniority, which was important to the state, Tobias said. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, will have more responsibility as he becomes Montana’s senior senator. “I think his stock goes up,” Tobias said.
People are talking about Baucus’ legacy and what he might do in the next year and a half, Tobias said. Implementing health care reform, legislation Baucus helped write, is important, he said. “Congress can make it easy or more difficult. I’m hopeful he’ll continue to try to make it work. Everybody doesn’t like something about it,” he said.
Tobias also said he thought Baucus could have been re-elected despite his controversial vote against expanded background checks for gun purchases. “I think it’s a tough vote if you represent Montana. He has a lot of support in the state,” he said.