updated 12/7/2004 8:06:37 PM ET 2004-12-08T01:06:37

Howard Baker, the former Senate majority leader, plans to step down as ambassador to Japan.

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Through a spokesman, Baker told The Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel, “It is time to come home.”

Two Republican officials, speaking on condition of anonymity Tuesday, confirmed Baker will leave the post. Tom Schieffer, the U.S. ambassador to Australia, is a possible replacement.

Baker had a long career in politics before being named ambassador by President Bush in 2001. He was a three-term Republican senator from Tennessee, Senate majority leader, presidential candidate and White House chief of staff to Ronald Reagan.

He had open heart surgery in August but returned to Tokyo in October.

Baker is married to former Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker.

During Baker’s tenure as ambassador, Japan has been supportive of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and reconstruction. The Japanese government is expected to decide this week whether to extend the deployment of its troops in the southern Iraq city Samawah.

In addition, Japan recently agreed to reopen its market to U.S. beef.

Japan banned U.S. beef imports late last year after a case of mad cow disease was discovered in Washington state.

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