White House to nominate Baucus for ambassador to China

December 18, 2013

The White House is set to select outgoing Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) as its pick for ambassador to China, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and a Baucus ally confirmed Wednesday.

Baucus, 72, previously announced that he won't seek reelection to the Senate in 2014.

Senate aides familiar with the plans said that the move has been in the works for several days.

The news was first reported by Politico. Baucus aides declined to comment Wednesday evening when asked about it outside the Senate Chamber.

As chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Baucus played a key role in crafting President Obama's health-care law and was among the first Democrats to publicly fret about the law's implementation -- worries that later turned out to be well-founded.

Baucus has also expressed a desire for a significant overhaul of the nation's tax code -- something he and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) hoped to tackle this year, after decades of failure to do so. Baucus's nomination would seemingly put that on hold.

If Baucus leaves, the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee could go to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the second-ranking Democrat. But he currently chairs the Senate commerce committee and is also retiring after the 2014 election. Next in line is Senate Energy Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Senate Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) ranks fourth.

Wyden, notably, has been highly critical of the administration's surveillance programs in recent months. Schumer is also the third-ranking member of Senate Democratic leadership.

Assuming Baucus is confirmed sometime in 2014, it means there will be a vacancy in his seat. Gov. Steve Bullock (D) will get to make the appointment for the final year of Baucus's term.

Bullock could pick his lieutenant governor, John Walsh, who is already running for the seat in 2014. But Walsh faces a primary against former lieutenant governor John Bohlinger, and governors sometimes opt to pick placeholders who don't intend to run for the seat in order to avoid allegations of favoritism.

Rep. Steve Daines is the leading candidate on the GOP side. Republicans have been favored to win the seat in a state that President Obama lost by 13 points in 2012.

China analysts welcomed the impending nomination of Baucus.

Kenneth Lieberthal, the national security director for Asia during the Clinton presidency, said Baucus’s appointment could be a good choice since he understands trade issues well. The Obama administration was probably looking for “someone of stature, someone Chinese know has access to White House and understands politics at home,” he said.

“It’s important to nominate and extend a prominent figure like him,” said Michael Green, a former Asia adviser in the George W. Bush administration.

Ed O'Keefe in Washington and William Wan in Beijing contributed to this report.

Updated at 7:15 p.m.

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Aaron Blake · December 18, 2013