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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sen. Ron Wyden Is Set to Get a Wider Platform - Expected Next Finance Chairman Is Likely to Take Aim at Corporate Taxes, Medicare Costs

From The Wall Street Journal (dated 1-18-2014):

When Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden sought to co-author an ambitious tax overhaul with a GOP colleague a few years ago, the two men kept hitting roadblocks as they drafted the bill.
 
But Mr. Wyden kept coming back to his Republican counterpart, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, on the Senate floor, Mr. Gregg said, offering new ideas and insisting they could reach an agreement on a bill. Finally, after two years, they did so, "purely because of his unrelenting positive outlook," said Mr. Gregg, who has since retired.

The bill never got serious consideration by Congress, in part because Mr. Wyden didn't have the clout to push it to the forefront.

That could be about to change as Mr. Wyden, of Oregon, is set to bring his tenacity to one of the Senate's most coveted jobs. With the anticipated resignation of Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) to become U.S. ambassador to China, Mr. Wyden is expected in coming weeks to become Finance Committee chairman, a storied post that has been held by nationally prominent politicians like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bob Dole. The committee has been a crucible for major legislation, including President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul.

Until Mr. Baucus is confirmed, Mr. Wyden has resisted talking publicly about what he plans to do with the committee chairmanship, and 2014 promises to be a difficult year for big legislation. But many of his more ambitious ideas are already known.

Unlike the centrist Mr. Baucus, Mr. Wyden, 64 years old, has strong support among Democrats, thanks in part to his generally liberal views on many budget, environmental and social issues, as well as defense. On economic-policy issues in particular, though, he has reached across the aisle—occasionally to the chagrin of some liberals. The finance post will provide him a platform for more of that.

On taxes, he is likely to try to renew momentum for an overhaul. His tax plan would cut the corporate rate to 24%—lower than other Democrats propose—from its current 35%, although he also would make sweeping changes to corporate breaks that worry some multinational firms.

He wants to shore up Medicare by better focusing the program on treatment of chronic health problems, according to his former chief of staff, Josh Kardon. In addition, Mr. Wyden could want more protections for workers and digital firms in pending trade legislation, which would also move through the Finance Committee.

During 2014, Mr. Wyden also will have to focus on the relatively unglamorous task of finding ways to keep some costly programs going. Those include temporary tax breaks for businesses, as well as reimbursement rules for Medicare physicians. Both will likely require cuts elsewhere in the budget, higher revenue, or both.

Mr. Wyden "understands that true bipartisanship builds on the best ideas from both parties," said Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman, who worked with Mr. Wyden a couple of years ago on an unusual proposal to overhaul Medicare by creating marketplaces where private plans could compete with the traditional federal program.

Mr. Ryan appears likely to succeed Rep. Dave Camp (R., Mich.) as Ways and Means chairman, meaning Mr. Ryan would work closely with Mr. Wyden next year, assuming their parties stay in power after this fall.

Mr. Wyden was born in Kansas and grew up in California, graduating from Stanford University. He attended law school at the University of Oregon and quickly got involved in the state's lively politics, serving as an aide and adviser to legendary populist Sen. Wayne Morse as Mr. Morse attempted a political comeback in 1972 and 1974. In 1980, Mr. Wyden improbably won a congressional seat over a powerful incumbent Democrat, wandering the aisles of Portland grocery stores to round up votes. In 1996, he won the Senate seat once held by Mr. Morse.

He has since emerged as a voice on the digital economy and electronic privacy. "He is a massive thinker" not only on digital issues but on trade, tax and health care, says Peter Cleveland, vice president for government relations at Intel Corp., a major employer in Oregon.

On the Finance Committee, Mr. Wyden will have to balance loyalties to his liberal constituencies with his desire to find ways to put Medicare and other entitlements on a more sustainable path. "His big thing is that if you're not talking about Medicare, you're not talking about [fixing] the budget," said Barbara Smith Warner, a former aide who recently became an Oregon legislator.

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