WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama intends to nominate Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., as ambassador to China, Democratic officials said Wednesday, turning to a lawmaker well-versed in trade issues to fill one of the nation’s most sensitive diplomatic posts.
If confirmed by the Senate, Baucus would replace Ambassador Gary Locke, who announced last month he was stepping down.
The Montanan’s departure from the Senate would have an impact on the 2014 election for control of Congress. Under state law, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has the authority to name a Senate successor to serve until the election, and speculation immediately turned to a fellow Democrat, Lt. Gov. John Walsh, already a candidate for a full term.
Baucus, 72, sidestepped questions about the ambassadorship. “It’s not for me to comment on. … This happens every once in a while. Names get floated around.”
Obama is in search of a new top diplomat in Beijing as he executes a so-called Asia pivot in U.S. foreign policy to more directly counter China after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The relationship between the two nations has grown more troubled in recent weeks, with Chinese authorities unilaterally declaring an air defense zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Baucus, 72, was first elected to the Senate in 1978 and since early 2007 has been chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over taxes, trade, health care and more. As committee chairman, Baucus has pressed both Democratic and Republican administrations to take a harder line against what he says are unfair Chinese trade practices.
Baucus’ appointment would create a vacancy atop the finance committee that Senate Democrats would fill. Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia is immediately behind Baucus in seniority and ordinarily would ascend to the chairmanship but has announced he intends to retire at the end of next year. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon is next in line in seniority.