White House to tap Baucus as next ambassador to China

The White House is expected to nominate Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus as the next U.S. ambassador to China, two sources familiar with the matter confirm to NBC News.

Baucus, the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, announced in April that he would not seek re-election in 2014. He has served in the Senate since 1978.

One Democratic official familiar with the matter said Baucus is expected to step down from the Senate before his term expires. That will allow Montana's Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock to appoint an interim senator to serve out the remainder of the year, giving Democrats an advantage in the coming Montana Senate race. 

His departure would be a blow to advocates of reforming the tax system; he and Rep. Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, have been working behind the scenes for months to overhaul the tax code.

The news of Baucus’ expected nomination was first reported by Politico. 

Baucus is not known for extensive expertise on China, though he has dealt with international trade issues from his post as Finance Committee chairman. He's visited China approximately eight times, a person familiar with his background said. Another Democratic official emphasized that Baucus was heavily involved in efforts to bring China into the World Trade Organization in the 1990s. 

Baucus's colleagues -- who will have to confirm him to the post -- were largely complimentary of his expected nomination.

"He does a lot of trade stuff," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "He has good background."

"He ought to be confirmed immediately," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., questioned his Senate colleague's credentials. 

"I’m sure he’d do a fine job, he has a long and extensive background on China," McCain said with a sarcastic laugh.

Later, when a reporter suggested he wasn't offering a ringing endorsement, McCain added: "I've ordered takeout before."

NBC's Frank Thorp contributed to this report.