WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who helped Republican George W. Bush win sweeping tax cuts, led the design of President Barack Obama's health law and then correctly predicted it would be a "train wreck," is getting a diplomatic plum: Washington is shipping him to China.
Democratic officials say Obama intends to nominate Baucus to be U.S. ambassador to China. If confirmed by the Senate, Baucus would become the chamber's latest contribution to the diplomatic corps, joining former Sen. John Kerry, who is Obama's secretary of state.
A moderate from a rural, Western state, Baucus is something of an enigma in Washington. He has worked hard to nurture bipartisan relationships in a town that thrives on political fights. He is more conservative than many of his Democratic colleagues, yet he was a key architect of Obama's signature health care measure, the most politically divisive law since Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. Baucus was also a key player in them.
Congress passed Obama's health law without a single Republican vote, but not for lack of effort by Baucus. He met for months behind closed doors with GOP colleagues, sometimes to the dismay of Democratic leaders.
Baucus showed his independent streak again in April, stunning fellow Democrats when he said the administration was bungling the implementation of the health care law.
"I just see a huge train wreck coming down," Baucus told Obama's health care chief during a routine budget hearing.
Republicans immediately latched onto the comment and haven't let go, repeating it again and again this fall as the rollout of the new "Obamacare" insurance exchanges ran into one disaster after another.
Baucus, 72, was first elected to the Senate in 1978 after two terms in the House. Since 2007, he has chaired the Finance Committee, now the post powerful panel in the Senate with jurisdiction over taxes, trade, Social Security and health care — all among the nation's most contentious issues.
Baucus rose to the position even though he angered many Democrats when he worked with Republicans in 2001 to enact sweeping tax cuts championed by Bush. He worked with Republicans again in 2004 when Congress pushed through a GOP plan to create a new prescription drug benefit under Medicare.
On China, Baucus more closely shares the views of the White House. He has visited China at least eight times and has hosted trade delegations from the country. At the same time, Baucus has been an outspoken critic of China's trade practices, complaining that it "effectively bans U.S. beef," an important export of Montana.
Baucus has also criticized China for manipulating its currency. Many in the U.S. have long complained that China is depressing the value of its currency to unfairly subsidize Chinese exports to the United States while penalizing U.S. exports to China.
A fifth-generation Montanan, Baucus grew up on a ranch built by his great-grandfather outside of Helena. An avid outdoorsman, he is more fit than many of his younger colleagues in the Senate, with his thick gray hair and ruddy face.
In 2003 — at age 61 — Baucus was running a 50-mile road race when he tripped on the pavement and fell on his face. A gash above his eye turned out to be so serious that he had to have surgery two months later to relieve pressure on his brain.
Bloodied and bruised, Baucus was only eight miles into the race. He got back to his feet and ran the remaining 42 miles, getting several stitches after the finish.
Baucus announced earlier this year he would not run for re-election in 2014, saying he didn't want to "die here with my boots on. There is life beyond Congress."
He is praised by members of both parties as a consensus builder. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, predicted that Baucus will easily win Senate confirmation for the ambassadorship.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a senior Democrat on the Finance Committee, said the China assignment would be a capstone to Baucus' career.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said: "I can't think of anyone whose integrity, whose intelligence, whose commitment to the nation and whose patriotism would be so well-served and so beneficial for this country."
Baucus' latest cause been overhauling the nation's tax laws. Once again he reached across the political divide, teaming with his Republican counterpart in the House, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan, to champion tax reform.
They toured the country together this summer, holding campaign-style events touting the benefits of a simpler tax code. The necessary groundswell of support has yet to develop in Washington, but Baucus is not giving up on the idea.
"I'm saying tax reform is no. 1 on my priority (list)," Baucus said Wednesday, refusing to talk about the China post before an official announcement. "That's what I'm trying to get accomplished."
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