President Obama confirmed Friday his decision to nominate Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to be the next United States Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. The move turned heads on Capitol Hill as Baucus is the chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee, which is in charge of tax policy and would spearhead any anticipated reforms of the tax code. The senator from the Big Sky State previously announced his intention to retire from the Senate in 2014 after serving in the upper chamber of Congress since 1978. In the Senate, Baucus’ would-be successor to the committee chairmanship, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., is also expected to retire in the coming election cycle. This would leave Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., as the most likely candidate for leadership on the committee and the point person for tax reform with Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
In Montana, the announcement sent shockwaves throughout the political scene. With an open Senate seat at stake, Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont., is expected to appoint a successor to Baucus’ seat to then run in the upcoming 2014 midterm elections in the hopes that middle-to-right-leaning Montana could be controlled by two senators and a governor from the Democratic Party for the first time since 1989. The most likely choice would be Bullock’s Lt. Governor, John Walsh. But both John Bohlinger, the former Lt. Governor, and Jim Messina, President Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and a Montana native, have also been named as potential appointees on Bullock’s shortlist.
While the move to nominate Baucus was surprising to some political watchers, it may have been made with a keen sense of political calculation by the Obama administration. Baucus is a supporter of the Affordable Care Act but has been a vocal critic of its rollout, comparing the HealthCare.gov website to the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty.”
Baucus has experience in advocating for bringing down trade barriers in U.S.-China economic relations. He would enter the post at a politically-sensitive moment, as the leadership in China has become increasingly aggressive in its claims of strategic airspace previously claimed by Japan. While Baucus is not well-known for dealing with defense issues in China, he is especially well-regarded on business and trade issues in Asia — skills tested in the Finance Committee which oversees federal trade tariffs and port taxes.
Gary Locke, the current U.S. Ambassador to China and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, will be leaving the post if Baucus’ nomination is confirmed.