WASHINGTON (AP) — The Democrat in line to chair the Senate's most powerful committee is a liberal Oregonian who has been an occasional thorn in the side of the intelligence community, the Obama administration and his own party.
For Sen. Ron Wyden, the only job better than leading the Senate Finance Committee and its jurisdiction over taxes, trade and health care policy might be starting forward for the Portland Trail Blazers.
"After the NBA, it's probably his dream job," said Jennifer Hoelzer, a former aide to the lanky, 6-foot-4 former college basketball player. President Barack Obama said Friday he intends to nominate Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., as U.S. ambassador to China. After 35 years in the Senate, Baucus announced last April he would not seek re-election next year. Wyden is the panel's third most-senior Democrat, behind West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who also has said he wouldn't seek another term in 2014.
In comments to reporters this week, Rockefeller indicated he would not seek to claim the Finance Committee's chair, adding that it would be good if Wyden did. "I want that committee to be a little more aggressive, and he will be," Rockefeller said.
Wyden, 64, is a longtime health care reform advocate who has pushed a plan to overhaul the U.S. tax code, in part by lowering business tax rates and simplifying personal income taxes. He has a long record of teaming with Republicans, including Rep. Paul Ryan on Medicare, former Sen. Judd Gregg on taxes and Sen. Rand Paul on intelligence issues and drones.
In recent years, Wyden has become a bigger burr to the Obama administration and intelligence community over government surveillance programs. A longtime member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wyden has repeatedly spoken out against what he considers the administration's trampling of privacy rights and has written a bill to stop the National Security Agency's bulk collection of people's phone and email records.
Wyden, who has served in the Senate since 1996, declined to discuss succeeding Baucus, only saying Friday that the finance panel has "many important responsibilities" and that the tax code should be overhauled.
He chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he has pushed renewables while taking a cautious approach on issues such as exporting liquefied natural gas and regulating hydraulic fracturing, a controversial oil and gas drilling technique also known as fracking.
Wyden is more liberal than Baucus and has his own ideas about health care reform. Before Obama's health care overhaul became law, Wyden sponsored a plan that would have allowed people to take their health care policies with them when they changed employers.
"Health care was the reason Ron Wyden ran for the House of Representatives in the early 1980s and it remains his passion," said Josh Kardon, a former chief of staff for the senator. Health care was the issue that pushed Wyden to work with Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who was the GOP candidate for vice president last year. Two years ago, the pair proposed changes to Medicare that would allow private plans to compete with the government-run plan. Wyden was the only prominent Democrat to support the idea and later distanced himself from Ryan's larger budget plan, which included the Medicare component.
Baucus had made reforming the tax code his top priority his last two years on office, working with his Republican counterpart in the House, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan, to attempt to develop a framework to do it. But without an active push from Obama, their effort didn't build much steam this year.
Kardon, a longtime Wyden confidant, said his former boss remains keenly interested in taxes and will almost certainly pursue his own overhaul, "although perhaps on a somewhat different pathway to get there" than the one Baucus pursued.
"Many of the questions that Chairman Baucus is asking on tax reform are issues that Sen. Wyden has been examining for several years," Kardon said. Wyden worked with then-Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., on a 2010 tax overhaul. After Gregg's retirement in 2011, Wyden turned to Indiana Sen. Dan Coats. The plan sets a flat 24 percent corporate tax rate, eliminates three of six personal income tax brackets and jettisons tax breaks and loopholes.
"Sen. Wyden was always the most energetic person in the room — boundless energy and optimism," said Jim Carter, Gregg's former tax aide who also served as a deputy assistant Treasury secretary in the Bush administration.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the senior Republican on the energy panel, said Wyden tries to find solutions on energy issues that more frequently break along regional rather than party lines. "The benefit that we have is we're both kind of coming at this from the approach of let's make some things happen here instead of focusing and getting all twisted around in those areas where we disagree," Murkowski said.
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