Democrats are leery of Wild Card Wyden

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A maverick senator’s ascension to the chairmanship of the Finance Committee next month could break years of legislative gridlock on one of the most influential panels in Congress.

Republicans are looking forward to working with Sen. Ron Wyden, a pragmatic Democrat from Oregon who has reached across the aisle on healthcare and taxes. 

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Wyden will soon take the gavel from Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who has presided over the panel as chairman or ranking member since 2001. Baucus is expected to be confirmed as President Obama’s ambassador to China.

“I’m excited,” said Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who has co-sponsored a comprehensive tax reform bill with Wyden.

“He knows you’ve got to have bipartisan support to get a tax bill that’s going to pass and be worth anything.”

Wyden’s eagerness to work with Republicans makes some Democrats nervous.

“Ron will have to tone down his self-loving love of being different,” warned a senior Democratic senator.

They feel confident, however, that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democrats will keep the lanky Oregonian from straying too far.

“You can’t do stuff like this if you’re a chairman. And you don’t want to because you’re conscious of being a chairman and you want to be fair,” said the Democratic lawmaker.

Wyden’s designs for Medicare are especially worrisome for liberals who remember his long history of independent thinking on healthcare issues. He has stayed in contact with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) since teaming up with him in 2011 to draft a white paper outlining significant reforms to the entitlement system.

Wyden and Ryan will be huge players on healthcare and tax reform in the next Congress. Ryan in 2015 is expected to become the next chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Their collaboration outraged fellow Democrats, especially after Republicans used Wyden’s name to deflect Democratic attacks on Ryan’s budget plan during the 2012 election.

Wyden remembers Reid and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) calling him simultaneously to make sure he would not endorse Ryan’s budget plan, which included sweeping changes to Medicare. Wyden put them at ease by promising that he would not, but not before giving them a good scare.

“I’m sure there will be times when he gives a lot of folks including myself heartburn on things,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist who works with labor unions and progressive groups. “I thought what he did with Ryan was terrible policy and worse politics and he shouldn’t have done it. He’s unconventional.”

On Wednesday, Wyden unveiled a more modest bipartisan Medicare reform plan with Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). The measure seeks to reduce Medicare costs by improving seniors’ access to specialized, patient-centered chronic care regardless of where they live. 

Wyden’s record of working with Republicans goes back to his career in the House, where he was one of the few Democrats who bothered reaching out to GOP lawmakers before the 1994 Republican revolution.

He was one of a minority of House Democrats to support the Securities Litigation Reform Act in the mid 1990s, which drew harsh condemnation from liberals. He voted for the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill, the centerpiece of former President George W. Bush’s healthcare agenda.

Wyden quips about what he calls his “shady past” on healthcare and prefers to focus on his ideas going forward.

“What I want to do is focus on the future, and I think now there’s an opportunity to go to what is dominating the debate about Medicare and that’s chronic disease,” he said of his new bill. “This is a chance to bring together both sides of the aisle.”

He has pledged to work with his Democratic colleagues as chairman of the Finance Committee.

“Look at my track record, I chair the Energy Committee and I consult very closely with our members and that’s been my style since I’ve been in public life,” he said. “I’ve tried to show that those of us who are Democrats feel strongly about our principles, we can keep our principles, work closely with our colleagues and still find our way to common ground in a challenging political environment.”

The 64-year-old lawmaker has forged a close working relationship with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the ranking Republican on the Energy panel, as well as with other GOP senators such as Mike Crapo (Idaho) and Jerry Moran (Kan.).

Such bipartisan bonds on Capitol Hill are unusual, but especially for a senator from a blue state who helped found the Oregon chapter of the Gray Panthers.

“Certainly he’ll run the committee differently. Anyone who takes over the committee would do it in a different way,” said former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a longtime member of the Finance Committee.  “He grinds and grinds and grinds — and I mean that in a very positive way — to achieve a result. He is one persistent guy.”

Wyden will have a heap of issues before him when he takes over from Baucus, who will depart in the midst of an effort to pass a trade promotion authority bill, a permanent repeal of scheduled cuts to doctors’ Medicare payments and an extension of expired tax provisions.

While Baucus has a history of collaborating with Republicans, bipartisan compromises on the Finance Committee haven’t been as plentiful as they were a decade ago.

Wyden will face an early test over the trade promotion authority bill. Reid on Tuesday called the legislation “controversial” and declined to say whether it will reach the floor.

Baucus largely shut Wyden out of the negotiations to craft the bill, so Senate insiders expect the incoming chairman might be inclined to let it die in the face of stiff opposition within his own caucus.

The reverberations of Wyden taking over the committee will be felt strongly on K Street, where many former Baucus aides have set up lucrative careers over the years.

“It will shake things up,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist, who added former Baucus staffers would find a way to survive. “Smart people who lobby realize they can’t rely on a relationship with a member.”

There are fewer ex-Wyden staffers circulating in downtown D.C., which will make their connections on Capitol Hill all the more valuable. Capitol Counsel, a bipartisan lobbying firm, scored a coup last week when it hired Josh Kardon, who served as Wyden’s chief of staff for 17 years.

“His history with Wyden is a big plus. We were pursuing Josh before we found out Wyden would be chairman,” said John Raffaelli, the founding partner at Capitol Counsel.

Raffaelli said he knew of only one other former Wyden staffer in the lobbying business.