Sen. Max Baucus, the veteran Montana Democrat who has served in the Senate since 1978, is expected to be nominated by the White House to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to China, according to several sources familiar with the matter. Baucus began informing some of his colleagues and his staff about his upcoming nomination on Wednesday evening. It remains unclear when the appointment would take effect, but Baucus would have to win confirmation from his Senate colleagues.
Following up on last night's segment, in the world of international diplomacy, it was tough to see this one coming.
Confirmation shouldn't be a problem -- the conservative Democrat is already receiving Republican support and the nomination hasn't even been officially announced yet.
When a 35-year Senate veteran departs Capitol Hill, it's generally a fairly big deal, but the fact that Baucus is headed to China is an especially unusual development. Let's break down some of the angles:
First, though Baucus has no diplomatic experience, he's no stranger to U.S. policy in China. As Joshua Keating explained, the senator was chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, has worked on human rights issues in China, and worked on Chinese currency issues in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Baucus has also met several times with Chinese officials on trade and energy issues.
Second, Baucus was already set to retire from Congress next year, and his early departure may give Democrats a slight boost in keeping the seat. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) will appoint Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D) to fill the remainder of Baucus' term, and Walsh will now run as an incumbent rather than an open-seat challenger.
Third, Baucus' departure will shake things up on Capitol Hill a bit, because the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee is a sought-after post. As Dave Weigel noted, the gavel will probably now go to Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) -- a move Corporate America and its lobbyists probably won't like at all.
And finally, note that Baucus has been quietly working with House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) on a tax-reform package. As we discussed a month ago, that legislation, ostensibly a top Republican priority for this Congress, is in trouble anyway, but with Baucus leaving for Beijing, it's likely tax reform is now dead until 2015 -- at the earliest.