Tea Time for Baucus

Fisher criticizes Obama’s decision to nominate Montana Senator Max Baucus as his next ambassador to China:

Baucus is not an obvious choice. He is not completely new to China; he’s traveled there to promote trade, something he’s advocated since at least the mid-1990s. But there’s little on his resume that screams “China,” which is unusual both in that there are lots of more obviously qualified candidates and that most U.S. ambassadors to Beijing have had significant ties to the country.

Past ambassadors to China have often spoken fluent Chinese. This includes Obama-appointed Ambassador John Huntsman; Obama’s second ambassador, Gary Locke, did not speak Chinese but is Chinese-American, which turned out to be a diplomatic asset in its own way. There are lots of countries where the U.S. ambassadors do not speak the language. But China, owing to its challenge as a diplomatic post and its importance to the United States, has traditionally been different. Baucus would be the first non-Chinese-speaker to hold the post in 13 years. The office was has been held by fluent Chinese-speakers from 1981 through 1995 and again from 2001 through 2011.

Of course, speaking Chinese does not in and of itself determine whether or not someone will be a good ambassador to China. George H.W. Bush did not speak Chinese when he took the job in 1974. But the point is that it’s not like becoming, say, U.S. ambassador to Australia, which typically goes to political allies or major campaign fundraisers. It’s not the gold watch you get at the end of your career. It is your career.

However, Keating notes that Baucus has talked tough on China in the past and won’t necessarily be a lightweight:

[W]hile he’s not exactly a China hand, Baucus does have something of a track record on U.S.-Chinese relations over the 35 years he’s spent in congress.

During the early 2000s he was chair (and is still a member) of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a group that’s generally extremely critical of China on human rights and economic policy. He has recommended that the United States strongly advocate for human rights in China and urged President Bush during a 2002 visit to “urge Chinese authorities to perform a comprehensive review of those imprisoned for counterrevolutionary crimes, to release unconditionally all prisoners of conscience, to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and to invite the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom to visit China.” As Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he recently co-authored a letter accusing China of undervaluing “its currency, providing an unfair advantage to Chinese exporters and harming U.S. manufacturers and their workers”.  Ahead of WTO meetings in March 2012, he wrote. “China will not end its currency undervaluation unless the U.S. seizes opportunities like this to insist it does.”

First Read argues that Baucus ending his term early could help the Democrats in next year’s election:

Ever since Baucus said he wasn’t running for re-election — and after former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) took a pass on running — Montana has become a clear pick-up opportunity for Republicans, giving them a do-able shot at netting the six seats needed to win back the Senate next year. But yesterday’s news means that the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, gets to appoint a replacement for Baucus, and most observers believe the replacement pick will be Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D), who is already running for Baucus’ seat. Putting someone like Walsh in the Senate would boost his name ID, give him the benefits of incumbency (staff, official duties), and potentially clear the Democratic primary (although it seems like fellow candidate John Bohlinger is someone who isn’t easily persuaded to get out of a race). At a minimum, Walsh — as an appointed senator — basically moves this race from Lean Republican to Toss Up.

Juliet Eilperin and Sean Sullivan note another reason Obama might be glad to ship the senator overseas:

It removes a credible critic of the Affordable Care Act from the scene. Baucus had expressed frustration with how the Administration was implementing its landmark health care law for months, suggesting in February it could be “a huge train wreck” if the government did not have enough money to spend on outreach to consumers. A month after the launch of HealthCare.gov the senator compared the federal health care marketplace to Humpty Dumpty, questioning whether the White House could repair the complicated online enrollment system. Baucus, who has chaired the Finance Committee since 2007 (and served as ranking member for the previous six years), has sought to conduct oversight of the Administration’s health care efforts for months, and it is less likely that the panel can do this aggressively — especially in the next few months — if he’s gone.

Ed O’Keefe previews the game of musical committee chairs that will follow Baucus’s retirement from the Senate:

Baucus, who already announced plans to retire after next year, has been the top Democrat on the powerful Senate Finance Committee since 2001. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is the panel’s second-ranking Democrat, but he already chairs the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee and also is retiring after next year. So the Finance Committee gavel is expected to go instead to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who currently chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but is eager to lead a more prominent panel, according to several senior Senate aides.

So once Wyden goes, who takes over Energy? Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is next in line, but he already chairs the Senate Banking Committee and also plans to retire after next year. So here again, Democrats are likely to turn to the third-ranking member, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Landrieu faces a tough reelection battle next year and her leadership of Energy might put her at odds next year with the Obama White House, which is reportedly planning to take a series of executive actions regarding energy policy and climate change. If Landrieu takes over Energy, she would need to relinquish her leadership of the Senate Small Business Committee. On this panel, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) ranks second, but she already chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. So if Cantwell opts to lead the Small Business Committee and drop her chairmanship of the Indian Affairs panel, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — Baucus’s home state colleague — would become a committee chairman for the first time.