Sen. Baucus defends nominating girlfriend

Baucus Girlfriend Nominated
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., seen here on Oct. 15, was in a romantic relationship with the woman he nominated for U.S. attorney. Charles Dharapak / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus is defending recommending his girlfriend for appointment as Montana's U.S. attorney.

Baucus said he and Melodee Hanes, who at the time headed his office in Montana, began dating when they were both separated from their spouses. The Montana Democrat said they did not have an affair.

In a statement issued by his office Saturday, Baucus said he recommended Hanes to become Montana's U.S. attorney because she is a highly qualified prosecutor who tried more than 100 jury trials, and said she is widely regarded as an expert in child abuse prosecution.

Baucus, who is helping Democrats expand health care, nominated Hanes for the post in March. But she later withdrew, saying she had been presented with other opportunities she couldn't pass up. Baucus said the two now live together in Washington.

Ty Matsdorf, a Baucus spokesman, on Friday said the senator had submitted six names to a third-party reviewer, who whittled those to Hanes and two others. Matsdorf said the senator sent the three names to the White House with no ranking.

"Senator Baucus recommended each of the three candidates based solely on qualifications, and merit, knowing whichever one the White House selected would serve Montana well," Matsdorf said.

Reason for disclosure?
Matsdorf declined to say why the senator was just now disclosing the circumstances surrounding the nomination, which was first reported in Roll Call, an online publication that covers Washington politics.

Baucus and his ex-wife Wanda announced last April that they planned to divorce after 25 years of marriage. In a joint statement, they said they have "parted ways amicably and with mutual respect."

Before the April announcement, Baucus said the couple had some "differences" in the marriage, which was his second.

Hanes started working for Baucus in 2002 and was his state director before leaving his office earlier this year for a position in the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Mel is supremely qualified and she got to her current position based solely on her merit," Matsdorf said.

President Barack Obama eventually nominated Helena attorney Michael Cotter for U.S. attorney, who supervises prosecutors of all federal crimes committed in Montana and the state's seven Indian reservations. Cotter is awaiting confirmation.

Baucus was elected to the Montana House in 1973 and to the U.S. House in 1974 and 1976. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978 at age 36, and is up for re-election in 2014.

The senator has played increasingly visible roles in Congress, sometimes willing to buck his Democratic Party on certain issues. He seems to take the position that the state that sent him to the Senate for five terms is fundamentally conservative and its voters want someone willing to base votes on more than party lines.

At the center of health reform effort
Most recently Baucus has been at the center of an effort to move sweeping health care legislation through the Senate with a bill aimed at meeting Obama's goal of overhauling the nation's health care system to cover 48 million uninsured Americans.

Just on Friday, Baucus went against his party and backed a Republican effort to eliminate a long-term care insurance program to help seniors and the disabled. Republicans argued that the new plan would be a drain on the federal budget.

The Democrat has also been in the middle of other congressional battles: He played a key role in 2003 legislation adding a prescription-drug benefit to the Medicare program and enactment of President George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001.

Baucus also has secured millions in federal funding for highways and billions in disaster aid for drought-plagued farmers and ranchers.