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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Baucus: Girlfriend was ‘highly qualified’

Montana senator nominated Hanes for U.S. attorney job

Paul Richter Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., on Saturday defended recommending his girlfriend and former staffer to become a U.S. attorney, arguing that she is a “highly qualified prosecutor” who would have served his home state well.

One of the most influential figures in the ongoing health care overhaul effort, Baucus acknowledged that he has had a romantic relationship with Melodee Hanes since the summer of 2008. In a statement, the senator said that he and Hanes, who live together on Capitol Hill, were separated from their spouses at the time.

“It wasn’t an affair,” Baucus said.

However, after his disclosure of the relationship late Friday, the Republican National Committee demanded that the Senate Ethics Committee explore the propriety of Baucus including Hanes among three candidates he recommended to the White House for the U.S. attorney post.

While some political analysts in Montana said the episode likely would cause political turbulence for Baucus back home, legal experts said his action did not break any law. The effect on the Democrats’ health care overhaul is expected to be minimal.

Senate Democrats defended Baucus as he presided Saturday over the chamber’s health care debate. The Montana lawmaker is a “good friend and outstanding senator, and he has my full support,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, also were not critical of Baucus.

Hanes, 53, worked for the 67-year-old Baucus from 2003 until earlier this year as his state office director and field director. In March, he decided to recommend Hanes and two other candidates for the U.S. attorney post and – in consultation with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., – passed their names on to the White House. Later that month, before the White House made its decision, Baucus and Hanes decided to withdraw her name because she planned to move to Washington and take another job with the Justice Department so they could live together.

Baucus said he had submitted the three names “unranked,” and insisted that the process that ultimately led to selection of Montana lawyer Michael Cotter was “open and fair.”

“In the end, we decided it would be best for Mel to withdraw her name from consideration,” he said. “That allowed us to live together in Washington, where Mel applied independently with the Department of Justice and, not surprising to anyone who’s looked at her resume, got the DOJ job (at the juvenile justice office) on her merit.”

Baucus’ disclosure came following a series of episodes that have embarrassed prominent politicians.

The Senate Ethics Committee is weighing action against Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who has admitted to an affair with a former member of his campaign staff. And in South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford faces possible impeachment charges tied to his relationship with an Argentine woman.

Baucus, a senator since 1979, is not facing re-election until 2014. But political analysts in Montana said the episode could strengthen the views of some constituents in the conservative state that he does not share their values.

“He’s going to have to do some repair work,” said David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University.