Hours after Max Baucus slipped out the back door of Room 216 in the Hart Senate Office Building -- in the middle of his committee's health-care deliberations on Sept. 25 -- he pulled up a seat at the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas next to Jim Messina, the White House's political fixer for the reform effort.
The meeting had all the makings of a secret out-of-town summit between the point men for the executive and legislative branches on the most ambitious domestic policy overhaul in a half-century.
That, or a quick family reunion.
"He's like a son to me," Baucus, the 67-year-old Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said of Messina.
"He's a father figure to me," Messina, the 40-year-old White House deputy chief of staff, said of Baucus.
The two Montanans had gathered in the Vegas restaurant Aureole with more than a dozen close friends and family to kick off a weekend 33rd-birthday celebration for Baucus's biological son, Zeno. But it is the father-son relationship between Baucus and his former chief of staff Messina that matters for people who care about the health-care politics that shaped the Finance Committee's bill and this week's $848 billion Senate bill to overhaul the system, not to mention climate change or any other of the many big-ticket items on the Obama agenda that have to pass through Baucus's committee.