Baucus creates his own mess

BAUCUS CREATES HIS OWN MESS…. After more than three decades on the Hill, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has built up quite a bit of goodwill. That’s good, because it looks like he’ll need it.

A spokesman for Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, said early Saturday that the senator nominated his girlfriend, a lawyer who worked for him at the time, for a United States attorney position last March.

The girlfriend, Melodee Hanes, worked for Mr. Baucus as his state office director and as a field director between 2003 and 2009. Mr. Baucus and Ms. Hanes were separated from their spouses at the time they became romantically involved in the summer of 2008, said the spokesman, Tyler Matsdorf. Ms. Hanes eventually resigned from her position, Mr. Matsdorf said, and both she and the senator subsequently divorced their spouses.

“Senator Baucus is currently in a mature and happy relationship with Melodee Hanes,” Mr. Matsdorf said in a statement. “They are both divorced, and in no way was their relationship the cause of their respective divorces.”

The details look bad, but whether they’re career-ending bad is another question. It’s certainly possible new details may emerge, but at this point, I’d put the controversy in the “damaging but survivable” category.

Initial reports said Baucus was having an extra-marital affair with Hanes. That may be true in the technical sense — the senator was not yet divorced — but Baucus was separated from his wife when he entered a relationship with Hanes. There may be some ethics concerns about the senator being romantically involved with an attorney under his employ, but she did resign.

The biggest problem here, of course, was Baucus recommending his girlfriend to be a U.S. Attorney (the Obama administration ended up nominating someone else). That showed very poor judgment on the senator’s part, and Hanes was right to withdraw her name from consideration.

There are details, however, that make this seem a little less damaging. For example, Hanes’ background made a U.S. Attorney nomination more than plausible — she’s actually pretty qualified for the gig. What’s more, Baucus seems to have taken some steps to insulate himself from the conflict of interest — six names of possible Montanans was submitted for consideration “to an independent, highly respected Montana attorney who reviewed the applications.” Hanes was a finalist, but not because Baucus put her name on the list.

Maybe another shoe will drop here, but based on what we know, Baucus may be able to overcome this. He clearly screwed up — senators don’t release embarrassing news late on a Friday night in December unless they know it’s humiliating — but the revelations so far are manageable. If David Vitter can get away with his prostitution scandal and run for re-election, Baucus will probably be able to survive this.

Baucus, by the way, won’t be up for re-election until 2014.