The Billings Outpost

Walsh gets Senate seat; GOP readies attack

HELENA HANDBAG

Cathy Siegner

To the surprise of few, Gov. Steve Bullock has chosen his lieutenant governor, John Walsh, to fill out the remainder of Max Baucus’ term in the U.S. Senate. The announcement, made at a press conference in the Capitol Building in Helena this past Friday, was sprinkled throughout with irony, although it was undoubtedly unintentional.

In his acceptance speech, Walsh talked about how he learned from his Butte upbringing that the country was built by people working together regardless of their beliefs. “That’s why I believe this isn’t about party – it’s about having leaders who will put Montana first,” he said. Well, sorry to burst that particular bubble, but if Walsh thinks that his appointment isn’t about party and helping the Democrats retain majority control of the U.S. Senate, he’s either in dreamland or trying to send Montana voters there.

Bullock, whose supply of political courage is apparently running low, had played a ridiculous game with the public via the press basically consisting of, “I can’t comment on the selection process because we don’t actually have a vacancy yet.” Apparently we were supposed to believe that he hadn’t been conferring with Baucus, the White House, Senate Democratic leaders and other party insiders for weeks beforehand. Uh huh.

The governor is getting hassled for his politically expedient choice and rightly so. In fact, Republicans were slamming Walsh even before he was named to the post. In a cartoonish 47-second YouTube video posted a few days prior to the appointment, the National Republican Senatorial Committee claimed that, “Harry Reid and Barack Obama are pulling the strings in Montana,” and that Walsh was “afraid of the spotlight” because of well-publicized problems from his past.

Nanoseconds after Walsh was named, the Montana State Republican Central Committee posted another YouTube video, this one nearly 1.5 minutes long, which uses video clips of Walsh from 2012 decrying the practice of “cronyism” and making a “political appointment” and contrasting them with news reports from 2014 that Walsh was widely expected to be named to replace Baucus. “John Walsh, an insider chosen by insiders,” it concludes. Pretty tough to argue that point.

The Daily Kos, usually a pro-Democratic site, noted that Bullock “went the simplest and safest route” by choosing Walsh, adding that, while Walsh’s chances will be boosted by his temporary incumbency and by having access to wealthy campaign donors in Washington, D.C., the race remains “Lean Republican” because of the superior financial position of GOP Senate primary candidate U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

Also, the Daily Kos analysis pointed out, Walsh will have to spend a lot of time traveling back and forth to D.C. instead of being out on the campaign trail, plus he may have to vote on some tough issues between now and the general election on Nov. 4. But, the analysis concluded, “Walsh and the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] have undoubtedly polled these questions to death, and if a Senate appointment had been a net negative, Bullock would have surely picked someone else.”

Daily Kos isn’t the only political handicapper with that view. The Fix, the Washington Post’s appropriately named political blog, calls Montana’s U.S. Senate race one of three open seats that are “must-wins for the GOP” across the country this year. Here’s their capsule analysis: “Things are looking up for Democrats here with Walsh headed to the Senate. But it’s still a slightly better pickup opportunity for Republicans than Arkansas. It will be interesting to watch how Walsh navigates big votes in Washington. Coming from a conservative state, it would be reasonable to expect to see him try to put distance between himself and the Obama administration in a tangible way.”

The Cook Political Report currently rates the Montana Senate race as “Lean Republican,” and The Hill noted last week that the Republican-aligned polling outfit American Crossroads has Daines ahead of Walsh by double digits: “In Montana, Rep. Steve Daines (R) holds a commanding 14-point lead over Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D), who many expect will be appointed to former Sen. Max Baucus’ (D-Mont.) seat later on Friday.”

Packing up

After being unanimously confirmed by his U.S. Senate colleagues last week as the next U.S. ambassador to China, Max Baucus will soon be packing up to head over to Beijing. That huge city (population about 11.5 million) doesn’t seem like the healthiest place to live given the funky air quality, which has literally been off the charts in recent years.

Since 2008, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing has had an air-quality monitoring device on top of its building that records air-quality data. Using standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the device records the level of air pollution from zero to 500, which is supposedly the top of the EPA scale. Levels between 301-500 are considered “hazardous,” and people are advised to avoid any outdoor activity. The device has reportedly recorded levels as high as 755 in the recent past.

Baucus will have air purifiers in his office, not to mention wherever he ends up living. Jogging, which he has been known to do on a regular basis, is going to be a rare event unless he can find an indoor track. I’m betting that Baucus will serve in his new post until President Obama leaves office in January 2017 and that he will then head straight back to Montana on the first (and fastest) airplane he can find.

Changing jobs

While one Montana native takes on an ambassadorship, another is stepping down from one. Michael McFaul, who was born in Glasgow and went to high school in Butte and Bozeman, will be leaving Moscow as the U.S. ambassador to Russia after the Sochi Olympics are over.

McFaul has been the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow for about two years. He formerly taught political science at Stanford University and has a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He linked up with the Obama administration in 2009 to help “reset” U.S. relations with Russia, which were in bad shape after eight years of former President George W. Bush.

McFaul has been a controversial figure in Russia because he met with pro-democracy groups just after his arrival there, and some of the more anti-American media outlets view him as a troublemaker for regularly using social media to directly communicate with students and others in that country (and consequently bypassing them).

While McFaul said that he loves his job and will miss Russia, he has indicated that he is looking forward to returning to his family in California.

Bad vote

Even though the U.S. Senate came together to confirm Max Baucus in his new position, they couldn’t manage to pass a no-brainer bill to extend long-term unemployment benefits for three months. The proposal failed on a mostly party-line 58-40 vote last Thursday, leaving about 1.75 million people without any weekly checks to help them through the continuing economic slump.

The proposal only needed two more affirmative votes to pass, and two GOP senators (both from Kansas) didn’t vote. Things are that close in the U.S. Senate these days.

However, the bill’s $6-billion price tag was daunting, and the bill faced an uphill battle in the U.S. House even if it had passed in the other chamber.

New chairman

One of the pitches Max Baucus made every six years when he sought re-election to the U.S. Senate was that he was “chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.”

That position is indeed powerful, but it will now be occupied by somebody else, namely U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., since ranking Democrat Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., declined it due to his impending retirement.

Assuming the Democrats retain control of the U.S. Senate, Wyden will take up the cause Baucus dropped: overhauling our tax system. Oregon’s senior senator recently called it a “dysfunctional, rotten mess,” which is relatively diplomatic compared to what others would call it.

His first step will be backing a bill to extend about 50 tax breaks for renewable energy, research and development, mortgage debt and others and then introduce larger reforms from there.

Wyden also said he would like to triple the standard tax deduction to $30,000 so that middle-class taxpayers might get a much-needed financial break. He wants to deal with what he calls the “Neiman Marcus-Dollar Tree economy,” meaning that higher-end retailers and the low-end ones are driving retail sales, while those marketing to the middle-income earners are left out.

Quote of the week

“There are a lot of terrible, entrenched congressmen out there. We’re going to choose one of them, throw him or her into the national spotlight, and see if we can’t send him or her scuttling under the refrigerator on election night.”

– Bill Maher, about his new “flip the district” project planned for his HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher,” New York Times, Jan. 30.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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