Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus is skipping retirement altogether and is instead on a path to China as President Obama's next ambassador to the emerging global power, lawmakers and former aides confirmed.
Baucus, 72, had planned to retire from the Senate when his term ends at the beginning of 2015, and the news of his appointment throws into uncertainty the prospects for tax reform, the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, and the Senate race to succeed him in red-state Montana, where Republicans were betting on picking up a seat.
"He's a fine man. We all know him. We've known him for years and years and it would be improper to not put him right through," said Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, brushing aside recent acrimony between the parties in the Senate over the so-called nuclear option.
Baucus, who has served longer on the Finance Committee than any other member and is the longest-serving senator in Montana's history, could not be reached for comment, and an aide declined to comment.
Baucus-world has known about the impending nomination for some time, said one former senior aide, as a vetting process began months ago.
The aide pointed to numerous official state visits Baucus has made to China and his work on trade and currency issues.
"You look at his mentor, basically for his whole time in Congress, it was Mike Mansfield," the aide said, referring to another Montana Democrat who served in the House and Senate from 1943 to 1976. "This is how Mansfield capped his service in Congress, being ambassador to Japan at a time that was equally important."
Baucus has been working on tax reform with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., even releasing a "discussion draft" on energy tax policy on Wednesday just hours before the news broke about his nomination. But the effort has been sputtering, and now with Baucus expected to leave before the process ends, tax reform could be in serious jeopardy.
"The odds against getting tax reform done are pretty high right now," Hatch said. "I don't think the Senate Democrats want it and I'm not so sure that the people in the House want to go through that right now. But it could happen."
Next in line for the Finance gavel is Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who is also retiring. But Rockefeller said he's not interested in succeeding Baucus.
The gavel then could go to Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who currently chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
"I don't know what's gonna happen, but if that happens I think it's good," Rockefeller said. "And I want that committee to be a little more aggressive, and he will be."
A number of lawmakers coming off the Senate floor after a vote on the budget were surprised at the ambassadorship news. "I did not know that but I'm sure he'll do a fine job," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "He has a long and extensive background on China," McCain added, before chuckling a bit.
"I had an inkling" about the nomination coming, Rockefeller said, "just because I'm really good at inklings."
"Ever since I was a little boy I wanted to be an ambassador to China," Rockefeller said. "Obviously that fell through but if it works out for him, I'm really happy.... He does a lot of trade stuff. He's got a good background."
Baucus, particularly known to irk more-liberal Democrats, was perceived as too easily making concessions to Republicans. Baucus voted against gun-control legislation in the wake of last year's Newtown, Conn., shooting, which became a belated shock of sorts when news of his retirement broke soon after. He had opposed Senate Democrats' budget blueprint. His comment that he foresaw the implementation of the Affordable Care Act as "a huge train wreck coming down" quickly became a favorite Republican talking point.
Baucus had a decade to get used to the throng of reporters that followed him around the halls of the Capitol, hanging on every word on taxes, trade, and the various government programs dependent on his committee to keep going. Doc fix? That was Baucus. Free trade? Him too.
"We're working on it," he consistently told people who were asking whether this deal or that deal was completed. He once introduced reporters to his son and his fiancee inside his hideaway room just off the Senate floor. The reporters, long since wise to the hideaway's location, were staking him out.
He wasn't always so comfortable with the spotlight. When he ascended to the post of Finance Committee chairman in 2001, he stared blankly at reporters asking about a tax bill being negotiated at the time by President George W. Bush. He soon warmed to the idea, however. He was famous for telling reporters one thing before he met with fellow Democrats during a regular Tuesday meeting and then telling them something different afterwards.
Politically, Baucus's appointment could help Senate Democrats if he steps down before the midterm election and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock picks an interim successor, who could then run as an incumbent. Republicans were eager to pick up the seat and felt they had a prime candidate in GOP Rep. Steve Daines.
Montana would also be a key for Republicans to win a Senate majority in 2014, but Baucus's early departure could change the dynamic, with Democratic Lt. Gov. John Walsh already an announced candidate.