When the dust settles after Sen. Baucus’s nomination as ambassador to China, Sen. Cantwell may emerge as the new chair of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. (Cliff Owen/AP)

President Obama’s selection of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to serve as ambassador to China may end up leaving Democrats in search of a new chair for the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.

Wait, what?

Welcome to musical chairs in the Senate, where according to many reports, the committee carousel could turn as follows: Baucus, who headed the Senate Finance Committee, will likely be replaced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who currently chairs the energy committee. Most expect his vacancy would then be filled by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who currently heads the small business panel but who, coming from nation’s third-highest petroleum-producing state, has a long history with energy policy.

So, that means she would have to pass the gavel to someone else — but to whom?

If all those pieces do fall into place (and many are already planning accordingly), there would be a few potential candidates. One name we are hearing rise to the top from several sources on the Hill: Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington.

Behind Landrieu, the Democrats on the committee with the highest seniority are Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa), both of whom currently chair other committees and, more importantly, both of whom are retiring at the end of their current terms. Fourth on the seniority list is Cantwell, and while she too already wields a gavel (chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs), she could elect to relinquish that post if offered the top spot on the small business panel.

Cantwell’s office declined to comment when asked if the senator had been approached by party leaders. However, Kevin Kuhlman, legislative affairs manager for the National Federation of Independent Business, Tony Wilkinson, president of the National Association of Guaranteed Government Lenders, and another source on the Hill said Cantwell would be a likely choice to replace Landrieu. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations have been private.

If she does take over, the small business committee would gain a new leader who has made improving access to capital on Main Street a top priority. Members of the Obama administration lauded Cantwell as one of the key drivers of the Small Business Jobs Act back in 2010, which expanded the lending authority of the Small Business Administration and provided new funds to community-based small-business lenders across the country.

In addition, she has several times pushed lawmakers to bring back a popular lending initiative known as the 504 refinance program, which provided attractive terms under which small employers could refinance debt for property and other tangible assets.

“The 504 refinancing saves jobs,” she said during a hearing this past summer, later stumping for more federal aid for firms that are damaged by a natural disaster, too. “These are critical issues that may not meet the headlines every day, but these small businesses are what are keeping America’s job growth and hiring people going.”

Cantwell has also advocated for lower investment taxes for small business owners and wants to make permanent a research-and-development tax credit for innovative firms. In addition, a few years ago, she sponsored legislation to increase penalties for government contractors that misrepresent themselves as small businesses.

On the possibility that Cantwell will take the reigns, John Arensmeyer, president of the Small Business Majority, commented: “While we have been very happy with Senator Landrieu’s work as chair and will be sorry to see her go, we have also worked with Senator Cantwell and have found her to be very tuned into the needs of small businesses.”

If Cantwell winds up staying put, the most plausible alternative could be Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, sources say. Though he has spent fewer years in the Senate (seven years, compared to her 13), Cardin has championed many of the same issues as Cantwell.

For instance, Cardin has authored legislation that would raise the federal government’s annual small-business contracting goal from 23 percent to 25 percent of all procurements. In addition, he has pushed to make permanent the government’s SBIR and STTR programs, which requires large federal agencies to set aside a portion of their budgets to fund research-and-development projects at small businesses.

Cardin hinted at some of his other legislative priorities during remarks last summer while visiting a small vineyard in Montgomery County, Md.

“There is so much commonsense, federal legislation Congress can pass to help small businesses and the middle class,” he said. “Immigration reform, tax reform, and a farm bill would all give small businesses the resources and certainty they need to grow.”

Baucus’s confirmation process is expected to be speedy, which means Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) could unveil the new committee rosters in the next few weeks.

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