Obama to nominate Baucus as U.S. ambassador to China

In this April 17, 2013 file photo, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., questions Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as she testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

President Obama officially announced his intent to nominate Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to be the next U.S. ambassador to China on Friday, praising the veteran senator in a statement as “perfectly suited” to his new prospective role.

“For more than two decades Max Baucus has worked to deepen the relationship between the United States and China,” Mr. Obama said. “The economic agreements he helped forge have created millions of American jobs and added billions of dollars to our economy, and he’s perfectly suited to build on that progress in his new role.”

Baucus reacted to the nomination in a statement. "I am humbled by the nomination and deeply honored to have the opportunity to represent the United States in China," he said. "The U.S.-China relationship is one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships. If confirmed, my goal will be to further strengthen diplomatic and economic ties between our two nations."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which Baucus chairs, praised his colleague's nomination in a statement. "His depth and breadth of knowledge will provide him with a strong foundation that will serve him well as the next U.S. envoy to China," Hatch said. "This is a tremendous opportunity for Max, who I know will work tirelessly to strengthen U.S.-China relations, which is incredibly important in today's competitive global economy."

On Wednesday, news broke that Baucus, who had already announced that he would retire after the current Congress ends in 2015, would relinquish his seat early to be named the next chief envoy to China, one of the nation’s most important diplomatic outposts.

If he is confirmed, Baucus would replace Gary Locke, the former Commerce Secretary who took over the job in March 2011. Locke, the first Chinese-American to hold the job, announced last month he would step down to rejoin his family.

Baucus, 72, currently serves as the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, and has been actively involved in efforts to reform the tax code. He was one of the handful of red-state Democrats in the Senate who could have faced a tough re-election battle if he chose to seek office again. There are currently three people vying for the seat, including Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., current Lt. Gov. John Walsh and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, both Democrats.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont., will make an appointment to fill Baucus’ vacant seat after he officially steps down as senator.  That person, reportedly Democratic Lt. Gov. John Walsh, would hold the seat until the next regularly-scheduled statewide general election – in this case, next November.

The move could give Democrats a leg up in their drive to keep Baucus’s seat in Democratic hands. If Walsh is appointed and he decides to run in the general election in 2014, he would do so an incumbent’s edge in fundraising, organization, and name recognition.