Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) will serve as the next U.S. ambassador to China after his colleagues confirmed him Thursday for the critical diplomatic position.

Senators voted 96 to 0 to confirm Baucus; he voted "present." He replaces Gary Locke, who is stepping down to return to Washington state to be with his family.

Baucus had already announced plans not to seek reelection when President Obama tapped him in December for the new role. The appointment will allow Montana's Democratic governor to choose a new senator. It is widely assumed that Baucus's successor would run for the seat in November as an incumbent, with the hope of helping Democrats hold on to a narrow majority in the Senate.

As chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Baucus played a key role in crafting 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’s impending departure will set off a round of musical chairs among Senate committee chairmen.  Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is expected to assume control of the finance panel, a move that likely will lead to Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) taking the top spot on the Senate Energy Committee.