Baucus chosen for ambassador to China

Greg Nash

President Obama will nominate Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) for ambassador to China, lobbyists and a leading GOP senator said Wednesday.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the top Republican on the Finance Committee, said he understood that tapping Baucus for the key diplomatic post was a “done deal.”

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Hatch did not delve into specifics on how or when he learned of the plan, but cited a “good authority.”

“I understand it’s a done deal. I’m going to miss him.”

Baucus, a key architect of President Obama’s signature healthcare law and a champion of tax reform, told reporters on Wednesday that he wouldn’t comment, but did not deny that he would be chosen for the ambassadorship.

“There’s a lot of stuff flying around. A lot of names,” Baucus said. “I’m not going to speculate. That’s not for me to discuss.”

Baucus announced earlier this year that he would not seek a seventh term in 2014, stunning many in the political world and on K Street.

The move to join the Obama administration is another surprise, and could have a political upside for Senate Democrats.

By leaving the Senate early, it allows Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) to fill the seat ahead of a difficult election fight in the conservative-leaning state.

A former Senate Democratic aide said that Montana’s current lieutenant governor, John Walsh (D), is expected to be appointed to Baucus's seat once the confirmation process is complete.

That would allow Walsh, who was already seeking Baucus’s seat, to run as an incumbent. Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) had been leading Walsh in polls and is considered a strong candidate for the GOP.

A source close to Baucus said the choice made sense for several reasons — including that the senator had been the top Democrat on Finance, the committee that oversees trade issues, for a dozen years.

Baucus also helped to normalize trade relations with China and has been a frequent visitor to the country, though he has also been critical of Beijing’s currency policies.

The White House is expected to try to move Baucus’s nomination forward quickly, according to another source familiar with the situation.

Gary Locke, the current U.S. ambassador to China, announced last month that he was stepping down.

The nomination of Baucus will also bring change to the leadership of the Finance Committee, a powerful panel which wide jurisdiction over taxes and spending.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), currently chairing the Commerce Committee, is next in line to take over the Finance committee. But Rockefeller has said he will not run for reelection in 2014, and media outlets reported that he showed scant interest Wednesday in taking over the powerful committee.

That would give Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), currently the Energy and Natural Resources chairman, the chance to take the gavel. Under that scenario, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a top GOP target in 2014, could become chairwoman of the Energy panel.

Wyden has shown a keen interest in several of the key issues on Finance’s plate, including tax reform and Medicare, but some Democrats have also been nervous about the Oregon Democrat’s willingness to work with Republicans like House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Ryan said this week that he’d like to take over the House Ways and Means Committee, which also has jurisdiction over those issues, in 2015. The current Ways and Means chairman, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), has worked closely with Baucus and is term-limited at the panel.

Baucus’s exit would be a serious blow to his efforts with Camp to push comprehensive tax reform across the finish line.

Hatch acknowledged the challenges ahead for tax reform, as many already saw the effort facing long odds.

“The odds against getting tax reform done are pretty high right now. I don't think Senate Democrats want it and I'm not so sure the people in the House want to go through that right now," he said.

Nonetheless, Hatch refused to call the effort kaput.

“Nothing’s ever a death knell around here. If people have the desire you can do some wonderful things,” Hatch said.

Baucus nomination is almost certain to be approved. Hatch said if Baucus is nominated for the post as he expects, he believes the Senate should confirm him “immediately.”

“We’ve all known him for years and years, and it would be improper to not put him right through.”

The news about Baucus's nomination was first reported by Politico. A Baucus staffer declined to comment on the potential nomination.

— This story was updated at 7:30 p.m.