Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus was confirmed as ambassador to China, elevating the chamber’s top leader on taxes, trade and health care to one of the toughest U.S. diplomatic posts.
The Senate vote was 96-0, with Baucus voting “present.” Baucus will head to China at a time of tension in the relationship between the world’s two biggest economies. His successor in the Senate will be chosen as early as this week.
The Montana Democrat said at his confirmation hearing that he’d place a priority on boosting trade while pressing China over computer-security breaches and crackdowns on political dissidents.
Baucus is “an excellent choice to represent America’s interests in China, a growing power in a global economy,” Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said on the Senate floor before today’s vote.
Baucus, 72, will succeed Gary Locke as ambassador. Montana Governor Steve Bullock probably will appoint a fellow Democrat to complete the 11 months remaining in Baucus’s Senate term.
“The U.S.-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world,” Baucus, a six-term senator, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his Jan. 28 confirmation hearing. “It will shape global affairs for generations to come. We must get it right.”
He said he’d cooperate with China on threats by North Korea’s nuclear program. Baucus said he’d address China’s Nov. 23 declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, covering areas claimed by Japan and South Korea. That action led to a rebuke by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Baucus said both nations must collaborate on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
Democrats control the Senate 55-45, meaning Republicans need a net gain of six seats in the November election to win the Senate majority.
Bullock hasn’t said who he’ll choose to fill Baucus’s Senate seat, though he signaled a decision would come shortly after the confirmation. Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Walsh, already campaigning for the party’s nomination to win a six-year term in November, has said he wants the appointment.
A past commander of the Montana National Guard, Walsh faces a June 3 primary against former Lieutenant Governor John Bohlinger and political newcomer Dirk Adams. The Republican front-runner is U.S. Representative Steve Daines, the state’s sole House member.
The temporary appointment may be a mixed blessing if Walsh were to get it, said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
While Walsh would have fundraising advantages as an incumbent, he would have to spend more time in Washington and less in Montana campaigning, and cast some politically complicated votes, she said.
Walsh raised $583,114 in the fourth quarter of 2013 from donors including the top three Senate Democrats, Reid of Nevada, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York, who donated through their leadership political action committees.
Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat who holds Montana’s other Senate seat, also donated to Walsh through his leadership PAC. Walsh began this year with $435,549 in campaign cash on hand.
Bullock also may decide to choose a placeholder who doesn’t plan to run in November, to avoid showing favoritism to any single candidate. One possibility is Jim Messina, a Montana native and former Baucus staff member who was President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager.
Montana displays bipartisan tendencies in its voting patterns. Baucus, Bullock and Tester are Democrats. In the 2012 presidential election, Republican Mitt Romney won 55 percent of the Montana vote.
Baucus’s confirmation will begin a series of changes in Senate committee leadership, which may in turn lead to shifts in policy areas including taxes and energy.
Baucus’s departure as chairman of the Finance Committee will elevate Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden to lead the panel, probably slowing efforts to revise the U.S. tax code. Wyden also said last week he’s not ready to support Baucus’s legislation to put future trade deals on a fast track to congressional approval.
Wyden, who now leads the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, will be replaced there by Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat and supporter of the oil and natural gas industries.
Landrieu, regarded as one of the most vulnerable Senate incumbents seeking re-election this year, will be aided by being able to advance legislation benefiting a home-state industry, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Baucus will bring a strong understanding of trade issues to the diplomatic job, said Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
“Economics is a key component of the bilateral relationship, and he will assume the role of ambassador with more knowledge of the trade and investment relationship than any of his predecessors,” Lardy said. (Bloomberg)