For months, advocates for and against true health care reform in Washington have been closely watching Senator Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the all-powerful Finance Committee, and wondering what he’ll do. We don’t know the answer yet. Baucus was instrumental in helping George Bush pass tax cuts for the rich and privatize Medicare, but he’s also said he wants to shepherd Barack Obama’s healthcare plan through Congress and make universal coverage a reality once and for all. Thus far, we don’t which Baucus will show up, the Bush-loving friend of big business or the populist ally of Obama.

There’s a reason The Nation dubbed Baucus "K Street’s Favorite Democrat" in a profile I wrote back in March 2007, after the Democrats recaptured Congress and Baucus became chair of the Finance Committee. Some background:

 

After helping to craft the largest tax cut in a generation, Baucus raised more than $1 million in campaign contributions from the financial sector for his 2002 re-election campaign. Opening doors in both directions were former Baucus staffers. During the debate over whether to add a $400 billion privately run prescription-drug plan to Medicare, his former chief of staff, David Castagnetti, and legislative aide, Scott Olsen, were part of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America’s $8 million lobbying effort. Shortly after the legislation–written largely by the pharmaceutical industry–passed, Baucus’s top staffer on the Finance Committee, Jeff Forbes, left to open his own lobbying shop, with clients including PhRMA, the drug maker Amgen and the American Health Care Association. These companies have in turn donated generously to Baucus; almost $700,000 between 2001 and 2006 from the healthcare industry and pharmaceutical lobby.

 

 

A study last year by Public Citizen found that between 1999 and 2005 Baucus, along with former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, took in the most special-interest money of any senator. He tops the list of recipients from business PACs. And only three senators have more former staffers working as lobbyists on K Street (at least two dozen in Baucus’s case). Now that he’s chairman, "former aides of Baucus, in particular, have been in demand on K Street by companies that hope to limit damage to their business interests," reports Congressional Quarterly.

 

The Sunlight Foundation recently reported that "five of Baucus’ former staffers currently work for a total of twenty-seven different organizations that are either in the health care or insurance sector or have a noted interest in the outcome," including many of the firms–like PhRMA–that are sure to lobby against or work to severely dilute Obama’s bill. Moreover, the Billings Gazette found that Baucus raises $1,500 a day from the medical-industrial complex, more than any other Democratic senator. "Baucus," the Gazette reported, "insists that this cascade of money is not unduly influencing his work." Said a Baucus spokesman, "No matter the issue, Max always puts Montana first."

Ok. Even if true, that’s not always a good thing. The New York Times reports today that senators are considering taxing unhealthy products, like soda and cigarettes, to pay for healthcare reform. A 3 cent tax on a can of Coke would raise $51.6 billion over a decade, the Joint Committee on Taxation calculated. Unfortunately, such a move might harm the sugar beet industry of Montana and the high fructose corn producers of Iowa, the latter represented by Baucus’ GOP counterpart and longtime ally on the Finance Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley. (The two are so close it’s not clear who’s heading the committee at times.) Thus Baucus says the proposal is on "life support." Protecting narrow state interests trumps covering 47 million uninsured Americans. Ladies and gentleman, welcome to your Congress!

There’s still a chance Baucus will do the right thing and draft a meaningful healthcare bill with a strong public option that gets through Congress and to the president’s desk. But it’s a little scary to watch a man so compromised become the point person on Congress’ most important bill.