Oregon Senator Ron Wyden may be next in line to become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which overseas taxation, trade and Medicare. The one hitch is that Democrats will have to fight to retain control of the Senate in the 2014 elections.
Wyden's potential ascension is due to the announcement today that current Chair Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, has decided not to seek reelection. Earlier, the ranking Democrat on the committee, West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, said he was retiring.
The bad news for Wyden is that it may be hard for Democrats to retain those two Senate seats and a few others in the 2014 mid-term elections when there isn't a presidential race to activate all Democratic constituencies.
Elected to the U.S. House in 1980, Wyden moved into his first major chairmanship this term by taking the gavel of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It takes that long in seniority-based Congress to move to the front of the line.
For a small state like Oregon, having the chairmanship of one of the most powerful committees in Congress is a big deal. Former Senator Bob Packwood chaired Senate Finance in the early 1980s and engineered a major tax overhaul. At the same time, the late Senator Mark Hatfield chaired Senate Appropriations, which made the two Oregon senators among the hottest phone numbers in DC.
But being the lead dog isn't always helpful in the political trenches back home. Former Oregon Congressman Al Ullman, who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, the counterpart to Senate Finance, was defeated for reelection in 1980. Many of his Eastern Oregon constituents thought Ullman had become too comfortable in Washington and didn't spend enough time back home.
Interestingly, Wyden came to Congress by defeating another long-time Oregon incumbent, Congressman Bob Duncan, whose sometimes abrasive style and moderate politics had worn thin with key constituent and interest groups in Portland's eastside.
Never known as a tax wonk, Wyden has championed tax reform and found bipartisan bedfellows with shared ideas of what to do. Since coming to Congress, Wyden has introduced himself as a pro-trade Democrat. And he earned his political credibility as the youngish go-getter for the Oregon Gray Panthers and has remained a major advocate for Medicare during his more than 30 years in Congress.
His dalliance on Medicare reform with House Budget Chair Paul Ryan, which popped up as a campaign issue in the 2012 presidential election, may cause some of Wyden's Democratic colleagues a little heartburn. But Wyden as chair may be what it takes to move toward some form of acceptable change to sustain Medicare and Medicaid.
And not to be overlooked, Wyden sitting in a powerful committee chair will be in a position to wheel and deal on issues of importance to Oregon – from payments to timber-dependent counties to trade agreements opening up new markets for Oregon goods and services.