WASHINGTON – Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, nominated his girlfriend to serve as a federal prosecutor earlier this year, the Democratic lawmaker's spokesman said on Saturday.
Baucus recommended Melodee Hanes, who served on his staff at the time and has an ongoing romantic relationship with the divorced senator, and two others for the post of attorney in his home state of Montana, Baucus spokesman Tyler Matsdorf said.
Matsdorf said Baucus chose to nominate Hanes for the job because of her "extensive background as a prosecutor and extensive legal experience." Hanes worked for Baucus from 2003 until earlier this year, and now holds a post at the Justice Department.
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"While her personal relationship with Senator Baucus should in no way be either a qualifier or a disqualifier for the position, during the nomination process and after much reflection, both Senator Baucus and Ms. Hanes agreed that she should withdraw her name from consideration because they wanted to live together in Washington, D.C.," Matsdorf said.
As Finance Committee chairman, Baucus has been a major player in the Senate in the development of healthcare reform legislation that is President Barack Obama's top domestic priority. He also is an important Democratic voice on tax and trade policy.
'A MATURE AND HAPPY RELATIONSHIP'
"Senator Baucus is currently in a mature and happy relationship with Melodee Hanes. They are both divorced, and in no way was their relationship the cause of their respective divorces," Matsdorf said.
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell declined to comment, but Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele called for a Senate Ethics Committee hearing into the process.
"Today's report that Senator Max Baucus used his Senate office to advance a taxpayer-funded appointment for his staff-member girlfriend raises a whole host of ethical questions," Steele said in a statement.
Matsdorf said that when Baucus and Hanes "realized that their relationship was developing beyond a purely professional nature, Melodee began the process of resigning her Senate employment."
Obama ultimately chose Michael Cotter, a lawyer from the Montana capital, Helena, for the post.
Baucus, 67, has represented Montana in the Senate since 1978. He is popular in his home state and was re-elected last year to his sixth six-year term with 73 percent of the vote
It is unclear whether the issue will undermine Baucus's effectiveness or distract his attention from important policy issues. He does not face re-election until 2014.
"Her name was one of six that was submitted for review by Senator Baucus to an independent, highly respected Montana attorney who reviewed the applications," Matsdorf said.
"After an extensive evaluation of all the applicants' qualifications, Ms. Hanes was one of three applicants the third-party reviewer recommended for consideration," he added.
Baucus and Senator Jon Tester, Montana's junior senator, then interviewed the candidates, and Baucus submitted those three names to the White House, "with no ranking or preference," Matsdorf said..
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