Sen. Max BaucusSen. Max BaucusPhoto: Center for American Progress Action FundIf you read one story about climate politics today, make it Lisa Lerer’s account of the Max Baucus factor in Politico. It explains why the Democratic senator from Montana–more than any Republican, dirty energy flack, or right-wing blowhard—has become the thorn in the side of those working for a robust climate bill:

For liberal Democrats unhappy with the way Max Baucus is handling health care reform, here’s another dose of bad news: He’s got his hands on climate and energy, too.

Behind closed doors, Sen. Baucus has been staking his claim on major aspects of the climate bill, including financing for a cap-and-trade system.

His power play could put Baucus at the helm of the Obama administration’s domestic agenda, giving an unpredictable Montana Democrat control over legislative proposals that could define the Democratic Party for years to come.

It’s inevitable that conservative Democratic lawmakers will have outsized influence in shaping a climate bill—the decisive votes lie in the ideological middle, after all. But as chair of the Senate Finance Committee and the second-most-senior Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW), Baucus’s position is especially powerful.

There’s a looming turf war over who gets to draft the climate bill between Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who wants the EPW, which she chairs, to have the most say, and Baucus, who sees his Finance Committee as responsible for the pollution permits that would be distributed under a cap-and-trade program.

More maddening is the lack of urgency Baucus has shown on both health care and climate change. Here’s Matt Yglesias on the senator’s death-by-bipartisanship approach to health reform:

Since late July, it’s been clear that the strategy for killing health care reform is to delay it first. And it’s clear that killing health care reform is the top priority of the Republican Party leadership. And Max Baucus has been working hand-in-glove with GOP leaders throughout the process to join them in their delaying tactics, even while presenting himself as the man leading the charge for reform. It’s odd. And it’s continuing

“Are there more important policy issues they’re working on?” Yglesias wonders. Good question.

It sure isn’t climate and energy that’s taking up Baucus’s time. His committee has held only one hearing on the issue this year, which he didn’t even attend.

In the last election cycle, Baucus received $1.6 million in donations from the health and insurance industry, and $437,140 from electrical utilities and agriculture groups, according to OpenSecrets.org — and that was for a race that wasn’t even close. He’s got a secure job until 2014, and may face another easy election then. What legacy does he want to leave on climate and health care?