Max Baucus

Montana Senator Max Baucus holds court inside The Missoula Club in Missoula, Mont. on Friday, Nov. 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Mike Albans)

Michael Albans

HELENA – Montana Sen. Max Baucus, nominated by President Barack Obama as the next U.S. ambassador to China, goes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next Tuesday for his confirmation hearing for the post.

Baucus, 72, chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee and a veteran Democrat, is expected to easily gain confirmation by the panel and the full Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.

However, a spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Wednesday it’s too early to say when the committee or full Senate might vote on Baucus’ nomination.

If Baucus is confirmed as U.S. ambassador to China, it will close the curtain on a 39-year career in Congress, including 35 years in the U.S. Senate – a career Baucus already decided last year would end in 2014.

He unexpectedly announced last April that he wouldn’t run for re-election in 2014, setting off a mad political scramble over who would run for his open seat, which will be a key battleground in the national contest for party control of the U.S. Senate.

Six people have declared themselves as candidates in that race, including Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines and Democratic Lt. Gov. John Walsh.

Baucus has said he plans to resign his Senate seat after he’s confirmed, setting up another political question in Montana: Who will Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock appoint to fill out the rest of Baucus’ term?

Political observers are speculating that Bullock may pick Walsh, his lieutenant governor and running mate, to make Walsh an incumbent U.S. senator as he runs for the seat.

Walsh has said he’s interested in the appointment, but Bullock has consistently refused to say who he might pick or what process he would use to make his decision.

“Until there’s a vacancy, there’s not much for us to talk about, at this point,” Bullock’s spokesman, Mike Wessler, said Wednesday. “Once there’s a vacancy, we’ll deal with it then.”

The other candidates vying for Baucus’ seat are Democrats John Bohlinger, a former lieutenant governor, and Dirk Adams, a lawyer and rancher from Wilsall, and Republicans Champ Edmunds, a state representative from Missoula, and David Leaser, an air traffic manager at the Kalispell airport.

Baucus’ confirmation hearing is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. Tuesday. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., will stream the hearing on the Internet via its website. It also may be broadcast on CSPAN.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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