WASHINGTON — Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., one of the most influential congressional figures of his era, announced his intention Tuesday to retire, a move that could produce sweeping changes in the political and legislative landscape over the next two years.
The announcement could mark the beginning of one of the most consequential periods in Baucus's long public career, because he pledged to devote the rest of his time in Washington to pursuing a comprehensive rewrite of the federal tax code, an effort that many see as key to breaking the fiscal gridlock that has paralyzed Washington in recent years.
That paralysis of taxes and spending has been a central feature of the Obama presidency, and Baucus said that when the president called him Tuesday about his retirement, the talk quickly turned to tax reform. "They're going to get tired of me," Baucus said in an interview, adding that White House officials do not "know themselves where they are" on a strategy for ending the stalemate.
Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax issues, said his decision not to seek re-election frees him from the demands of a campaign and will also allow him to focus on new trade agreements and implementation of the Obama health-care initiative, which he played a major role in drafting.
Baucus at some times has been a key ally of President Barack Obama and at others a thorn in his side. Shortly after Obama took office, Baucus crafted large portions of the massive 2009 economic stimulus package and played a key role in drafting the president's health-care plan. Last week he opposed Obama's gun-control proposal, the failure of which was a crushing defeat for the president.
Baucus defended his gun vote as a representation of his state's libertarian views, adding that nobody from the White House or Democratic leadership tried to get him to vote the other way.