HELENA — President Barack Obama will appoint Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., as the next U.S. ambassador to China, bringing to an end the Montanan’s 39-year career in Congress, news sources in Washington, D.C., reported Wednesday. Word spread around Washington on Wednesday afternoon of his pending appointment, but neither the White House nor Baucus had confirmed it by Wednesday evening.
Baucus, 72, first would have to receive Senate confirmation and then resign his Senate seat before taking over as ambassador to China.
He would succeed Ambassador Gary Locke, the former Washington governor, who in November announced his plans to leave the post.
Baucus’ decision to resign the Senate seat he had held since 1978 would give Gov. Steve Bullock, also a Democrat, the power to appoint his successor under state law.
There were reports that State Department officials were conducting background checks on Baucus in Helena, but the Gazette State Bureau was unable to confirm them with the Baucus staff.
In April, Baucus had shocked the Montana and national political community when he announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to the seat in 2014.
Since then, six candidates — three Democrats and three Republicans — have already announced their candidacies for the 2014 Senate election.
The Democrats are Lt. Gov. John Walsh, of Helena; former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, of Helena; and political newcomer Dirk Adams, of Wilsall. Republicans in the Senate race are U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, of Bozeman; state Rep. Champ Edmunds, of Missoula; and political newcomer David Leaser, of Kalispell.
Although Baucus’ staff could not confirm his appointment, spokeswoman Kathy Weber issued this statement:
“It’s natural that Max would be under consideration, given his breadth of experience and depth of knowledge necessary for this important position. Max is a smart choice for this position. He has the credentials; he has the gravitas that make him a natural for this role. Like his mentor, Senator (Mike) Mansfield, Max truly understands the importance of U.S. relationships in Asia
After Mansfield left the Senate in 1977, he served as the U.S. ambassador to Japan under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
As chairman of the powerful Senate Finance and Claims Committee, Baucus has long worked on trade issues.
“Like his mentor, Sen. Mansfield, Max has a unique understanding of the importance of U.S. relationships, not just in China but in the entire region,” said Matt McKenna, a former spokesman for Sen. Jon Tester. “He has the trust of his colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans. I just think it’s an incredibly smart pick for this position. No one would question his credentials as a China expert. I think Montanans should feel lucky that one of our own is even considered for it.”
The Diplomat, a magazine that covers Southeast Asia, said throughout his 35-year tenure in the Senate, “Baucus has been a cautious supporter of bringing China into the global economy and expanding America’s bilateral economic relationship with Beijing.”
“The move signals that the Obama administration will seek to focus on America’s economic relationship with China as the latter attempts to rebalance its economy to give greater weight to domestic consumption,” the publication said.
As Senate Finance Chairman, Baucus also has been working across party lines with his House counterpart, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., on a bipartisan tax reform proposal. They have made public some of a number of forthcoming draft proposals to overhaul the federal tax code.
When Baucus announced his retirement in April, he called it “an extremely difficult decision” and “the most difficult decision I’ve faced.”
“I often rely on Scripture,” he said in a Gazette State Bureau interview. “Ecclesiastes says there is a time and place for everything.”
He pulled the plug on a 2014 campaign that already had geared up and raised $5 million as of March 31.
Baucus was thought to be facing one of his most difficult political races. His poll numbers had plunged since he guided the Affordable Care Act through the Senate on behalf of the Obama administration. He said he believed the health law “is going to be well-appreciated down the road.”
He recalled in April how as a young congressman, he visited Mansfield, then the Senate majority leader.
"I asked Mike Mansfield 'If you do what’s right, the people will appreciate it?' ” Baucus said. “Mike said, ‘Yep, but sometimes it takes a long time.' "
Baucus also was a stalwart for the Democratic Party in Montana, donating large sums from his own campaign war chest to the party and deploying staffers using vacation time to work on down-ticket races in Montana.
In April, Baucus said the death of his mother, Jean Baucus, in December 2011 led him to think more about his own future.
“I just don’t want to die with my boots on,” Baucus said then. “I’m a Montanan. I’m coming home to Montana. It’s my home.”
He said at that time he and his wife, Melodee, would settle in Bozeman, where they were having a home built.
Baucus served a term in the Montana House, two terms as the Western District congressman and then in the Senate since 1978, taking office early because of a resignation.
“For 40 years, I’ve had the greatest privilege of my life representing Montana,” he said. “There isn’t anyone luckier than I am.”
Baucus, son of a wealthy ranching family, received undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford University. He worked as an attorney for federal agencies in Washington, D.C, before returning to Montana. He ran for the Legislature from Missoula and won a seat in the state House.
As a U.S. senator, Baucus at times was at odds with his own party. He voted for the tax cuts proposed by President George W. Bush in 2001, drawing criticism from his colleagues. Baucus used footage of Bush praising him in his 2002 re-election campaign.
Then again, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gave Baucus the assignment to lead the opposition to fight efforts by President Bush to privatize Social Security in 2005. The Bush proposal went nowhere.
Baucus voted for the gun control measures advocated by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, drawing criticism from gun owners in Montana. He later reversed his position and won endorsement from the NRA.