Sen. Max Baucus’s likely new job as the next U.S. envoy to China sent shock waves through the Senate.
But behind the scenes, the veteran Montana Democrat had for weeks been paving the way for President Barack Obama to nominate him to the high-level diplomatic post.Continue Reading
After a series of back-channel discussions with Senate Democratic leaders, sensitive conversations with senior White House officials and at a consequential lunch with Vice President Joe Biden, Baucus emerged as the clear front-runner to succeed Gary Locke in Beijing.
The vice president — an old friend of Baucus’s dating back to their three decades serving together in the Senate — had emerged as a chief advocate for his nomination, a topic they discussed over lunch at Biden’s residence near the Naval Observatory several weeks ago, according to several sources familiar with the meeting. That friendship, along with Baucus’s close ties with his former chief of staff, Jim Messina, who was also the president’s 2012 campaign manager, helped make what seemed like a pipe dream a reality.
Messina quietly asked Baucus sometime in November whether he would ever consider accepting the China post. After thinking about it, he told Messina he would. Messina spoke with two senior White House officials — Pete Rouse and Alyssa Mastromonaco — and the White House reported back it was “intrigued,” according to several sources. There were additional conversations with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his chief of staff, David Krone, as well as between Messina and Biden, who is so close to Baucus that he attended his wedding in 2011.
“I’m surprised,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the No. 4 Senate Democrat, who learned the news Wednesday evening.
“Shocked” was how Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) described his reaction.
On Friday, Obama formally announced he would nominate the 72-year-old Baucus to the post; it’s virtually guaranteed that he will win Senate confirmation. But over the past several days, Baucus’s imminent departure set off a wave of private jockeying among a handful of Democrats who were privy to the bombshell news. Baucus’s resignation from the Senate would mean he’d relinquish his post as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which has sweeping jurisdiction over taxes, international trade and health care issues.
The move could also reverberate across the 2014 landscape, with Baucus’s seat central to the fight for the Senate next year.
In an emotional speech over lunch to Senate Democrats on Thursday, Baucus highlighted how his move tracks that of his late political idol, Mike Mansfield, the long-serving Montana Democratic senator who was skipped over as U.S. ambassador to China but served as the country’s envoy to Japan for nearly a dozen years. Democrats, who were lunching in a room named after Mansfield, gave Baucus a standing ovation.
“He’s been my mentor,” Baucus said in an interview Thursday, speaking of Mansfield, whose pictures cover the walls in his office. “Part of the reason why I entered public service was my admiration and respect for him.”
Reid, whom Baucus had privately consulted through the course of his talks with the White House, was settling on a successor for the key committee chairmanship. Reid even floated the possibility of his close ally, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), taking the job, though aides on Thursday said it was not seriously entertained.
Reid also turned to the next most senior member of the panel, West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, to see if he wanted the key position. But Rockefeller, who will retire in January 2015 and is settled as chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, turned down the opportunity to run Finance, according to several sources.
That left Sen. Ron Wyden — the Oregon Democrat whose calls to overhaul Medicare worry some on the left — as the next most senior successor for the position. Wyden privately accepted the post and spoke with Rockefeller and the ranking Republican on the committee, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Wednesday evening.
On Thursday, Wyden declined to comment on his likely new job. But he made clear that just like Baucus, he sets a high priority in overhauling the Tax Code, though his views may be more in line with his party leadership over revenue increases than the centrist Baucus’s have been. Wyden also noted that he has long-standing plans to introduce a bipartisan bill in January with Sen. Johnny Iskason (R-Ga.) to overhaul how Medicare treats patients with chronic diseases.