By DAVID ESPO and MATT GOURAS
WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana announced plans Tuesday to retire at the end of his term after a career of enormous power and notable independence, producing both collaboration and conflict with fellow Democrats on major tax and health care legislation.
"I don't want to die here with my boots on. There is life beyond Congress," the 71-year-old Baucus said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
He became the eighth senator to announce retirement plans for 2014, and the sixth Democrat. One public poll recently suggested he would have faced a difficult challenge if he had sought a seventh term.
Republicans must gain six seats in 2014 to win a majority, and they said the retirement enhanced their prospects.
Yet Democrats were cheered when former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who recently stepped down after two terms, swiftly expressed interest in the race.
In a brief statement, President Barack Obama said Baucus "has been a leader on a broad range of issues that touch the lives of Americans across the country."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and Baucus' frequent legislative partner, was complimentary, too. "We ran the Finance Committee for 10 years together, and every bill except for three or four was bipartisan," he said in a statement. "The Senate will be worse off as a deliberative body when Senator Baucus leaves."
In a written statement, Baucus sketched an ambitious agenda for the rest of his term, topped by an overhaul of the tax code.
"Our country and our state face enormous challenges - rising debt, a dysfunctional tax code, threats to our outdoor heritage and the need for more good-paying jobs," he said, adding several Montana-specific priorities as well.
Baucus, a fifth-generation Montanan, was elected to the Senate in 1978 after two terms in the House. He became the top Democrat on the Finance Committee in early 2001. He has held the position ever since on the panel â¿¿ which has jurisdiction over taxes, Medicare, Medicaid, health care and trade â¿¿ as chairman when his party held a majority and as senior member of the minority when Republicans were in power.