Baucus’s Path to China Looks Clear in the Senate

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus(D-MT) speaks during a hearing on health insurance exchanges on November 6, 2013 in the Dirksen Senate Office on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN
National Journal
Michael Catalini Elahe Izadi
Dec. 18, 2013, 3:43 p.m.

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.

Billy House, Fawn Johnson and Ben Geman contributed to this article.
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