Following last month's announcement that Sen. Max Baucus could be named the next U.S. ambassador to China, politicos quickly took to hypothesizing on a string of intriguing questions. How would Baucus' early departure impact the 2014 election? Who would Gov. Steve Bullock appoint as Baucus' replacement?
Most of those questions remain unanswered. But one thing is increasingly clear: Baucus' Senate clock is running out fast. This raises a few more questions, specifically around the conservation bills Baucus intended to help punctuate his congressional legacy. Both the North Fork Watershed Protection Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act cleared committee with bipartisan support last year. Both are co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester. But only the former has the backing of Rep. Steve Daines—the man polling as the frontrunner for Baucus' seat this fall.
Daines has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Denny Rehberg, in rekindling debate over the Heritage Act. Daines hosted a listening session in Choteau last summer to gauge public opinion, as Rehberg had the year before. Just last week he reiterated to the Great Falls Tribune his reservation that the bill, crafted over several years by a diverse collection of interest groups on the Front, lacked the level of consensus he'd prefer.
Baucus has repeatedly said he'd pull out all the stops to get the Heritage Act to the finish line before he left. He even teamed up with Tamarack Brewing Company in 2013 to bolster support with a Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Ale. Baucus spokesperson Kathy Weber says it's unclear what path the bill might take in Congress. The Heritage Act is still a priority for Baucus, she adds, and his record shows he'll "do what it takes to get it done."
Those who crafted the bill remain optimistic that Baucus will come through. In a recent statement from the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, Choteau resident Gene Sentz said if Baucus can find a way, "he'll make it happen."
But even the coalition acknowledges the possibility that Baucus may depart for China before the Heritage Act passes. "From the get-go this legislation brought different types of people together," Sentz concluded, "and we think it will naturally bring our future delegation together too."
That would seem to depend on the answers to two more questions: Will Daines win this fall? And if he does, will he find the consensus he's looking for?