POLITICS: PennAve

Ron Wyden: A liberal who cuts deals with Republicans

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Congress,Taxes,Oregon,Health Care,David M. Drucker,PennAve,Ron Wyden,Senate Finance Committee

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon is an unusual hybrid: a Democrat with a liberal voting record and a reputation for reaching across the aisle to broker deals with Republicans.

That reputation will be put to a severe test when, if all goes as expected, he becomes chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee, replacing Max Baucus, who is leaving the chamber to become President Obama's ambassador to China.

Known as a policy wonk, Wyden came of age politically when his home state was still Republican-friendly territory. He ousted a Democratic incumbent and won a House seat in 1980, the year voters abandoned the Democratic Party in droves and helped make Ronald Reagan president. Sixteen years later, Wyden ascended to the Senate by narrowly beating a conservative Republican who later became a Wyden admirer.

"I would describe Ron as a principled liberal with a keen understanding of the requirement of pragmatism to get anything done," said Gordon Smith, the conservative Republican Wyden beat in the 1996 Senate race.

"There's always the tension in lawmaking between principles and reality," Smith said. "Ron tries very earnestly to walk that line so that at the end of every Congress he can point to things that he achieved and on which progress was made."

Wyden, who turns 65 in May, has supported Obama's agenda most of the time and receives high marks from unions and environmental groups. But the senator's habit of engaging with Republicans has occasionally gotten him into trouble with progressives and Senate Democrats.

In 2012, he was forced to distance himself from a health care reform proposal he developed with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., after Ryan, then the GOP's vice presidential nominee, started using the joint proposal to make the case against Obamacare -- much to the dismay of Wyden's fellow congressional Democrats.

But Wyden never altered his approach. He recently signaled that he would continue negotiations with House Republicans on comprehensive tax reform when he takes over the Finance Committee.

"You have to find a way to some common ground," Wyden told the Washington Examiner. "The reality is, neither side has the votes to force the other to do everything they want — neither side has those kinds of votes."

Over the years, Wyden has focused on reforming the U.S. tax code, overhauling health care and promoting alternative energy, among other issues. He is skeptical of the intelligence surveillance infrastructure that has expanded enormously since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and has worked to rein in the National Security Agency.

Wyden, the married father of five children, graduated from Stanford and earned a law degree from the University of Oregon. He got his start in politics in the 1970s as an advocate for Oregon's elderly. He founded and led the Beaver State chapter of the Gray Panthers for six years, until he was elected to the House. Over a 33-year congressional career, the affable lawmaker has consistently cruised to re-election, winning nearly a dozen contests by wide margins.

Oregon’s transition to a dependably blue state has bolstered Wyden’s political standing. However, Democrats and Republicans who have followed his career credit his success to understanding where Oregonians stand on key issues and advocating their interests. Wyden’s early and aggressive criticism of the NSA is in keeping with this approach.

But it's the senator's crisply run constituent services operation and the personal attention he pays to voters in all 36 Oregon counties, including ones that are sparsely populated and hard to reach, that has cemented Wyden's relationship with voters. Wyden projects the image of an independent-minded senator more interested in governing than politicking, and that plays well in Oregon.

At a time when Congress is bitterly divided between a Republican House and Democratic Senate and seemingly unable to get things done, lawmakers who have worked with Wyden said he's still able — and willing — to bridge the differences between the parties to get things done, even on the thorniest issues.

"He’s very good at diffusing tension and getting people to work together," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said. "Because I think he has a great comprehension on the issues, he feels comfortable getting people to say, 'OK, let’s sit down and talk about this.' "

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