Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who has served in the Senate for more than three decades, is President Obama's choice to be the next U.S. ambassador to China, ABC News has learned.
Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, had already announced his plans to step down from the Senate next year. When he announced his decision not to run in 2014, Baucus, 72, said he looked forward to returning to "the Montana public lands we've fought hard to keep open and untarnished."
While Baucus and Obama have never been particularly close, they share a key aide: Jim Messina, who helped broker the deal. Messina, the 2012 campaign manager for Obama, was a former chief of staff to Baucus and considers him his closest friend.
If confirmed, Baucus would replace Gary Locke, who has served as ambassador to China since 2011 and announced he plans to step down in early 2014.
Baucus was one of the key Senate advocates who helped pass Obama's health care law, and he has been a lead voice on taxes and trade in his nearly 36 years in the Senate.
It's unclear when the appointment will be made, but if Baucus leaves his seat before his term expires, Montana rules would allow for Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock to appoint a replacement, who would fill Baucus' seat until the next general election in November. This would allow Bullock to appoint a fellow Democrat, who could then run as the incumbent in 2014.
Baucus will have to be confirmed to the post by his Senate colleagues, and he could benefit from a recent rules change that only requires 51 votes for most of the president's nominees to clear a key procedural hurdle.