Reporting from 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 was a "highly qualified prosecutor" who would have served his home state well.
One of the most influential figures in the ongoing healthcare 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 both 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' inclusion of 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 would likely cause political turbulence for Baucus back home, legal experts said his action did not break any law. The effect on the Democrats' healthcare overhaul is expected to be minimal.
Senate Democrats defended Baucus as he presided Saturday over the chamber's healthcare debate. The Montana lawmaker is a "good friend and outstanding senator, and he has my full support," Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said.
Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, also were not critical of Baucus.
Hanes, 53, had worked for the 67-year-old Baucus since 2003 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 a 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 the 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. 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 after 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.
Legal experts said Saturday that although Baucus may be guilty of a conflict of interest, he never had the power to choose Hanes for the job. "No potential violation of law comes into play give the facts as we currently know them," said Kenneth Gross, a lawyer and expert on congressional ethics.
But Meredith McGehee of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center said, "Ethics laws are not the same as criminal laws.
"They are intended to ensure the public's trust. What [the ethics committee does] in this case is going to be important. This is a very powerful man who has been in the center of the healthcare reform debate."
Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, issued a statement saying the disclosure that Baucus had "used his Senate office to advance a taxpayer-funded appointment for his staff-member girlfriend raises a whole host of ethical questions. This issue demands the attention of the Senate Ethics Committee."
Any senator can call for an ethics investigation. But the committee would not act unless at least one of the panel's three Democrats joined its three Republicans in requesting an inquiry.
Baucus, a senator since 1979, is not facing reelection 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.
David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University, said that Baucus -- who is from a wealthy ranching family -- has to overcome the perception that "he is losing touch."
Many Montanans are not enthusiastic about the healthcare overhaul, Parker said, and "this is going to raise questions about whether he shares Montanans' values."
"He's going to have to do some repair work."
James Oliphant, Noam N. Levey and Janet Hook in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.