By Sam Baker and Bernie Becker - 04/23/13 08:32 PM EDT
Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.) is in line to become the top Democrat on the powerful Finance Committee now that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has decided to retire from Congress.
The Finance chairmanship is one of the most powerful positions in all of Congress. The panel has sweeping jurisdiction over taxes, healthcare and trade, and has long been the staging ground for major legislation, including President Obama’s healthcare reform law.
Some Democrats and liberal stakeholders are nervous about the prospect of putting that much power in Wyden's hands.
Like Baucus, Wyden has cultivated a reputation as a senator who likes to work across the aisle. But Democrats are wary of some of his bipartisan overtures — particularly the Medicare plan he introduced with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in 2011.
Republicans used Wyden's participation to argue that the plan to partially privatize Medicare was bipartisan, even as House Democrats made it the centerpiece of attack ads during the 2012 campaign.
Max Richtman, president and chief executive of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said he believes Wyden no longer supports the plan he worked on with Ryan. Wyden has voted against the Ryan budget since releasing the Medicare plan.
"When you are the committee chairman, all that can change," said Rockefeller, who is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
If Wyden takes over Finance, he'll also be in a key position to negotiate any Medicare changes.
Wyden declined to discuss the Finance post Tuesday morning, but listed Medicare as one of the panel's top priorities. The committee has a lot before it even in the time before Baucus leaves, "particularly addressing Medicare at a time when we have this demographic tsunami" coming, he said.
In addition to seeking bipartisan legislation on entitlements, Wyden has crafted bipartisan tax reform legislation, first with then-Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and then with Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.).
Wyden also joined Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) recent filibuster over the administration's use of unmanned drones, although he ultimately voted to confirm John Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose nomination was being filibustered.
The Oregon senator holds another chairmanship in the Senate; he just took the gavel of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this year.
In order for Wyden to have a shot at the coveted spot on Finance, Democrats will have to hold the Senate in 2014, which promises to be difficult. Before his retirement announcement, Baucus was among several red-state Senate Democrats vulnerable in the midterm election.
Now that Baucus has abandoned his reelection effort, he’ll be free to engage with Republicans on a rewrite of the tax code. The Finance Committee is holding full panel meetings on tax reform, and Baucus has extra incentive to pursue a bipartisan deal done before his time in Congress is up.
Wyden is currently the third-ranking Democrat on Finance, with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y), who helps craft the party’s messaging, sitting in the fourth slot. Rockefeller, the second-ranking Democrat on the panel, is retiring.
Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate's No. 3 Democrat, declined to speculate about committee assignments and chairmanships Tuesday.
Democrats currently control 55 seats in the Senate, meaning they can lose as many as five seats in the current election cycle and still retain the majority.
— Erik Wasson contributed.
This story was first posted at 10:45 a.m. and has been updated.