Marathon man Max holds key to TPP
Senator Max Baucus, the guy with his finger on the New Zealand/US trade future button, comes across as a colourful enigma.
A public supporter of gay marriage, the 70-year old Democratic senator from Montana, once copped flack for giving his girlfriend – a staffer in his office – a $US14,000 pay rise.
It was claimed, but never proved, he was drunk while on the Sentate floor.
And he was once the only Democrat to vote against a gun control bill.
As chairman of the US Senate Finance Committee – one of the most influential bodies when it comes to influencing policy – Senator Baucus is the man who effectively decides New Zealand's trade future with the US.
With that kind of heft behind him, he dropped by New Zealand the other day to catch up with Prime Minister John Key and Trade Minister Tim Groser and discuss free trade as part of the Trans-Pacfic Partnership negotiations.
Typically secretive, Mr Key's office would not comment on how the talks went, but it is worth reflecting on Senator Baucus' colourful background to get a handle on the man.
The 70-year-old Democrat from Montana, with a law degree from Stanford, was elected to Congress in 1973 and the Senate in 1978, making him the fifth longest-serving US Senator in office.
The Washington Post, documents the beginnings of his political career being fairly low-key and towing the party line.
More recently, and with a good few years on the clock, Senator Baucus has become more outspoken in going against the Democratic Party on some issues.
For example, in 1999 he was the only Democrat to vote against a law regulating the sale of guns at gun shows.
An avid hunter and fisher, he regularly enjoiys his sport in public lands around Montana.
He has gone against Democratic convention in supporting the death penalty, but supports Democratic leadership in environmental issues by voting against things such as oil subsidies and Arctic drilling.
A headline-hogging brush with controversy came in 2009 when it was revealed he had given his girlfriend Melodee Hanes a $US14,000 pay rise in 2008.
This was while he was starting to get romantically involved with her.
Ms Hanes also accompanied him on a taxpayer-funded trip to Southeast Asia and the Middle East, even though foreign policy was not her field.
Senator Baucus nominated Ms Hanes for the job of US attorney in Montana but she withdrew from consideration after it became clear details of their relationship would become public.
She became his third wife in January 2011.
He attracted attention from a YouTube video showing him apparently drunk on the Senate floor while debating health care in December 2009, about the time his relationship with Melodee Hanes was becoming public.
However, there is some debate about whether he is actually drunk or his style of oratory is simply less than graceful.
Mr Baucus' office issued a statement at the time the video emerged denying he was drunk.
In between getting married, having fun with guns and playing politics, the larger-than-life senator finds time to walk the entire length of Montana.
He did this in 1995 and 1996, covering more than 1300km.
In 2003 he ran a 50-mile (80km) ultra-marathon in 12 hours and that same year collapsed during a different 50-mile road race in Maryland, after which he had to have surgery to relieve pressure on his brain.
He had a pacemaker installed in June 2004 and a month later suffered minor injuries in a motorcycle crash. But despite that remains an avid walker and motorcyclist.
Whether or not he does any good for New Zealand's TPP future remains to be seen, but a few feet-on-the-ground characters like this wouldn't go amiss in New Zealand's parliament.
Maybe best of 10 down the range with the old 30-30 rifle is a trade deal tactic worth exploring...