J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, the powerful Senate Finance chairman who steered President Barack Obama's health care overhaul into law but broke with his party on gun control, said Tuesday he will not run for re-election.
"I don't want to die here with my boots on. There is life beyond Congress," the 71-year-old Baucus said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Baucus, who arrived in Washington as a member of the 1974 Watergate class in the House and has been a fixture in the Senate since 1979, said the decision was hard.
"It was probably the most difficult decision in my life," Baucus said.
He faced a tough re-election bid next year, with opposition to the health care law in his state taking a toll on his approval ratings.
A Democrat with an independent streak, Baucus supported the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and Obama's signature 2010 health care law. He broke with his party this year to oppose both the Senate Democratic budget blueprint and a hotly fought effort to beef up background checks for gun purchases.
Baucus, who helped write Obama's health care law, stunned administration officials last week when he told the president's health care chief that he thought the law was headed for a "train wreck" because of bumbling implementation.
"I just see a huge train wreck coming down," Baucus told Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Baucus was the first top Democrat to publicly voice fears about the rollout of the new health care law, designed to bring coverage to some 30 million uninsured people through a mix of government programs and tax credits for private insurance. Polls show that Americans remain confused by the complex law, and even many uninsured people are skeptical they will be helped by benefits that start next year.
Republican campaign officials immediately seized upon Baucus' comments.
Baucus' retirement opens up an opportunity for Republicans to claim a Senate seat in a state where GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney easily defeated Obama by 12 percentage points last year. But Democrats have proved resilient in Montana, with Sen. Jon Tester winning re-election last year. The election of Steve Bullock last year is the third term in a row in which Democrats have held the governorship.
Former two-term Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer indicated an interest in the race in an interview with The Associated Press.
"The opportunity to try and get the country moving again like we did in Montana, that's appealing," Schweitzer said. "I'm a fixer."
Republican campaign officials, who last week seized upon Baucus' comments on the health care law, sought to tar other Democratic Senate candidates in a statement Tuesday responding to Baucus' decision.
"Just days after calling Obamacare a 'train wreck,' its architect Max Baucus waved the white flag rather than face voters," said Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "Obamacare has gone from being an 'abstract' discussion to a real life pain for workers and families, which has Democratic candidates like Bruce Braley, Mark Pryor, Mark Begich and Kay Hagan backpedaling. ... The 2014 electoral map is in free-fall for Democrats, who were already facing a daunting challenge."
Possible Republican candidates are former Gov. Marc Racicot; Denny Rehberg, the former congressman who lost a bitter race last year to Tester; Rick Hill, another former congressman who lost to Bullock; and Steve Daines, the current Montana congressman.
The only Republicans who have declared their intention to run is state Sen. Champ Edmunds of Missoula and former state Sen. and gubernatorial candidate Corey Stapleton.
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