President Barack Obama will tap outgoing Senator Max Baucus to be the next US ambassador to China, a Senate aide said Wednesday.
As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus helped craft Obama's landmark health-care law, and his lengthy experience on the committee makes him well versed in trade issues, an all-important portfolio for dealing with the United States' second-largest trading partner.
The Montana Democrat's staff did not respond to a request to confirm the move. But a congressional source said fellow Senator Orrin Hatch told reporters that he was aware of the White House plan.
Hatch is the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee and works closely with Baucus on a wide range of issues.
The White House declined to comment on the appointment, and it remained unclear when the nomination would be announced.
Baucus, like all ambassadorial nominees, would need to be confirmed by the Senate.
The 72-year-old was first elected to the Senate in 1978. He announced in April that he would not seek re-election in 2014.
Baucus would replace Ambassador Gary Locke, a former secretary of commerce in the Obama administration, who has served in the sensitive Beijing post since 2011.
The Washington Post reported that Baucus will be succeeded by Montana's Lieutenant Governor John Walsh, also a Democrat, and that Walsh will run in November for a full, six-year Senate term.
In an opinion piece, the Post cited three reasons why the White House is trying to send Baucus to China.
One is that Baucus has become a critic of how Obama's health care reform has been implemented, and sending him to Beijing would get him out of the way.
It said that a month after the launch of HealthCare.gov the senator compared the federal health care marketplace where people are supposed to buy coverage to Humpty Dumpty, questioning whether the White House could fixed the very flawed online enrollment system.
Back in April Baucus warned the program would be a "train wreck" if major reforms and fixes to it weren't made.
What is more, Baucus has sought for months to oversee the administration's health care efforts and if he is gone it is less likely that the Senate Finance Committee can do this aggressively, the Post reckoned.
Secondly, Baucus has a lot of experience on China issues. In the 1990s he led the effort to bring China into the World Trade Organization, has visited China eight times and has also hosted Chinese trade delegations in Washington and Montana.
Finally, the Post said, Baucus's departure boosts the Democrats' chances of holding on to his seat in the mid-term legislative elections of next year.
Asked about Baucus' probable appointment, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters at a regular briefing: "At present China-US relations have maintained steady growth. The two sides are working together to establish a new model of major country relations between the two countries.
"No matter who assumes the position of US ambassador to China we all hope that he or she can play a positive role in promoting China-US exchanges, mutual trust and cooperation."