Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden won wide praise Thursday as the expected next chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee — and not just from his fellow Democrats.
Short of a Republican leading the panel, which touches almost every bill that moves through the Senate, conversations with GOP lobbyists and senators revealed enthusiasm for Wyden’s ascension. The senator has a history of negotiating with Republicans on controversial issues and is described by colleagues as a wonky dealmaker who knows how to defuse partisan tensions and build coalitions. Those qualities could prove crucial to passing legislation like tax reform, a matter of great interest to Wyden.
“He’s very adept at working across the aisle. That’s huge,” a Republican lobbyist told the Washington Examiner.
Wyden is the presumed successor to outgoing Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who President Obama picked as the next ambassador to China. Like Wyden, Baucus has a history of negotiating with Republicans to find common ground on hot-button issues. Baucus’ penchant for bipartisanship has over the years created friction with his fellow Democrats and frayed his relationship with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Among his bipartisan projects, Wyden has promoted health care legislation with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., sponsored a tax reform bill with Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and pitched transportation legislation with Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. But Wyden has a better relationship with Reid than Baucus, and is viewed as more progressive on key issues. That is likely to please Senate liberals and could mute any grumbling from outside progressive groups.
Wyden, currently chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, declined to talk about the chairmanship, but indicated an interest in continuing Baucus’ work with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., on tax reform and pursuing legislation to boost renewable energy supplies. Becoming chairman of Finance would require Wyden to relinquish the energy committee gavel.
“I think it’s pretty well understood: I think that the tax code is a dysfunctional mess; it’s a 100 years old this year and suffice it to say it looks its age everyday,” Wyden said.
Since the Democrats won the Senate in 2006, Reid has centralized power in the majority leader’s office, diminishing the influence committee chairmen wield over legislation. But the Finance Committee remains the Senate’s central policy hub, with jurisdiction over most legislation, including health care.
That positions Wyden, 64, as a key player on Capitol Hill and gives him a chance to revive bipartisan measures that previously stalled in committee. It also brings a change in the Democratic leadership on the committee for the first time since Baucus, who's generally seen as a centrist, took over in 2001.
Wyden was first elected in 1996 and is not up for re-election until 2016. Outgoing Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was next in line to succeed Baucus as Finance chairman, but wanted instead to remain chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Wyden was described by one Democratic operative as a legislator who “revels” in details, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who serves on Finance, said Wyden's command of the issues enables him to get people to work together on issues. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a former Finance chairman who is close to Baucus, said he is comfortable with Wyden and expects the committee to run smoothly under his leadership.
“I’ve worked together with Wyden on so many things, I feel I could have a good working relationship with him. But now what it means about the substance? I think it’s too early [to tell],” Grassley said.