WASHINGTON – President Obama's decision to tap Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus as the next U.S. ambassador to China paves the way for Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden to take over one of the most powerful congressional committees, with jurisdiction over the tax code, health care and trade policy.
Wyden, 64, is best known recently for his role on the Intelligence committee as a forceful critic of broad data gathering by U.S. intelligence agencies.
He was already expected to take over the Finance gavel in 2015, but it could occur sooner than expected as Baucus will exit the Senate as soon as his nomination is confirmed by his colleagues.
Baucus had already announced he was not seeking re-election. The panel's second-ranking Democrat, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is also retiring. Wyden is third ranking. Senate Democrats have generally adhered to strict seniority rules in awarding chairmanships.
"The Senate Finance Committee has many important responsibilities which include promoting job creation, ensuring competitiveness and stabilizing the nation's fiscal health," Wyden said in a statement. "I also look forward to continuing my work on preserving the Medicare guarantee and protecting retirement security, updating the nation's tax system with a focus on growth, fairness and efficiency and ensuring that fiscal policy supports keeping jobs here in America."
If Wyden assumes the Finance chairmanship early next year, it will scramble other chairmanships. He currently chairs the Energy and Natural Resources panel, which he will have to vacate. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is next in line for the gavel on that committee.
Baucus and his House counterpart, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., had a shared ambition to rewrite the federal tax code in this Congress. But Baucus is now on track to leave early, and Camp's term as chairman expires next year, effectively diffusing their effort.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., will seek the Ways and Means gavel next year. House Republicans set term limits for chairmen and do not follow strict seniority rules so lawmakers can be challenged for chairmanships.
Wyden has a moderate-to-liberal voting record, a history of breaking with party orthodoxy and a willingness to partner with GOP colleagues. He has worked with Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., on legislation to simplify the tax code. He also partnered with Ryan on a 2011 bill to overhaul the Medicare system, but it picked up no steam in a divided Congress.
Contributing: Raju Chebium, Gannett Washington Bureau