WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate easily confirmed longtime Sen. Max Baucus on Thursday to become ambassador to China, handing the job to a lawmaker well-versed in U.S. trade policy but with little expertise about military and other issues that have raised tensions with Beijing.
Senators gave final approval to the nomination of the moderate Baucus, D-Mont., by 96-0. Trim and youthful looking for his 72 years, Baucus accepted colleagues' congratulations before and during the roll call and voted "present" for his own nomination.
Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus has worked with Republicans during his 35 years in the Senate on issues ranging from taxes to health care reform — an independent streak that has vexed Democratic colleagues.
Baucus supported GOP President George W. Bush's sweeping 2001 tax cuts and his 2003 creation of Medicare prescription drug benefits, despite opposition by most Democrats.
He also helped write President Barack Obama's 2010 health care overhaul. Congress approved that measure solely with Democratic votes after Baucus spent months trying to craft a bipartisan version with Republicans.
"I'm proud to stand up for it, because it is helping millions of Americans," Baucus said in farewell remarks on the Senate floor after Thursday's vote, defending a law that Republicans are making a top issue this election year.
Most recently, he'd been working with Republicans to craft bills revamping the income tax system and streamlining congressional votes on trade treaties Obama is seeking with Asia and Europe.
"His passion is well-known to all of us, his decades of experience here in Congress. He's an excellent choice that President Obama made to represent America's interests in China," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a long-time Finance panel colleague, lauded the Montanan for "his willingness to put partisan differences aside for the greater good of all."
In 2001, Baucus championed China's inclusion in the World Trade Organization, which has helped Beijing conduct business with other countries. He has sponsored legislation — not enacted — punishing China for undervaluing its currency and has criticized Beijing for blocking U.S. imports of beef, a big business in his rural state.
Baucus had already announced he would not seek re-election this fall when Obama tapped him last December for the ambassadorship.
His early departure from the Senate — spokesman Sean Neary said Baucus planned to formally resign late Thursday — could turn what looked like a likely GOP Senate seat pickup into a more competitive race.
Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock planned a Friday news conference at which he was expected to name a temporary replacement for Baucus, perhaps Democratic Lt. Gov. John Walsh. That could let the appointee build a Senate record and gain visibility to defend the seat against expected GOP candidate Rep. Steve Daines.
Baucus' confirmation comes as China has emerged as a leading global economic and military power, at times causing strains between Beijing and Washington and its allies in the region.
China's economy is second in size only to that of the United States. The U.S. trade deficit with China hit $318 billion last year, far larger than it is with any other country, and the $1.3 trillion in Treasury securities China owns make it the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt.
Ties have also frayed as the U.S. has accused China of cybertheft of American intellectual property and of holding down the value of its currency to give a price advantage to its companies trading overseas.
U.S. officials have clashed with China over its human rights record, accusing it of mistreating political dissidents and many minority groups. On Thursday, Obama said at the annual National Prayer Breakfast that he has told leaders in Beijing that "realizing China's potential rests on upholding universal rights."
Beijing has been modernizing its military forces and engaging in territorial disputes in the seas off East Asia with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.
Baucus will replace Gary Locke, the former Commerce secretary and first Chinese-American to serve as U.S. ambassador to China.