Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, the powerful Senate Finance chairman who steered President Barack Obama's health care overhaul into law but broke with his party on gun control, has decided to retire, Democratic officials said Tuesday.
Baucus, 71, of Montana, has been a fixture in the Senate since 1979 and has been the top Democrat on the Finance panel since 2001. He faced a tough re-election bid next year, with opposition to the health care law in his state taking a toll on his approval ratings.
A Democrat with an independent streak, Baucus supported the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and Obama's signature 2010 health care law. He broke with his party this year to oppose both the Senate Democratic budget blueprint and a hotly fought effort to beef up background checks for gun purchases.
The officials spoke about his retirement decision on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly disclose the senator's intentions.
Baucus, who helped write Obama's health care law, stunned administration officials last week when he told the president's health care chief that he thought the law was headed for a "train wreck" because of bumbling implementation.
"I just see a huge train wreck coming down," Baucus told Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Baucus was the first top Democrat to publicly voice fears about the rollout of the new health care law, designed to bring coverage to some 30 million uninsured people through a mix of government programs and tax credits for private insurance. Polls show that Americans remain confused by the complex law, and even many uninsured people are skeptical they will be helped by benefits that start next year.
Republican campaign officials immediately seized upon Baucus' comments.
Baucus' retirement opens up an opportunity for Republicans to claim a Senate seat in a state where GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney easily defeated Obama by 12 percentage points last year. But Democrats have proved resilient in Montana, with Sen. Jon Tester winning re-election last year. The election of Steve Bullock last year is the third term in a row in which Democrats have held the governorship.
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