Montana’s governor chose his lieutenant governor as the U.S. Senate successor to Max Baucus, whose confirmation as ambassador to China is setting off a series of political changes.
Montana Governor Steve Bullock appointed Lieutenant Governor John Walsh, a fellow Democrat, to complete the final 11 months of Baucus’s term, a move that may help the party hold the seat in the November election.
“There is a lot we need to fix in Washington,” Walsh told reporters at news conference today in Helena, Montana. He said he will travel to Washington next week and hopes to be sworn in on Feb. 11.
The Senate voted 96-0 yesterday to approve Baucus, the Finance Committee chairman, for one of the toughest U.S. diplomatic posts. His departure will also cause a leadership change at the Senate Energy committee.
Baucus has said he will work to boost trade with China and press that nation over issues including computer-security breaches.
“The United States-China relationship I believe is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world,” Baucus said on the Senate floor yesterday. “It will shape global affairs for generations. We must get it right.”
Walsh, already campaigning for the Democratic nomination to win a six-year term in November, had said he wanted the appointment.
A past commander of the Montana National Guard, Walsh faces a June 3 primary against former Lieutenant Governor John Bohlinger and political newcomer Dirk Adams. The Republican front-runner is U.S. Representative Steve Daines, the state’s sole House member.
The temporary appointment may be a mixed blessing, said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
While Walsh will have fundraising advantages as an incumbent, he will have to spend more time in Washington and less in Montana campaigning, and will cast some politically complicated votes, she said.
Walsh raised $583,114 in the fourth quarter of 2013 from donors including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Jon Tester, a Democrat who holds Montana’s other Senate seat. Both gave through their leadership PACs. Walsh began this year with $435,549 in campaign cash on hand.
Democrats control the Senate 55-45, meaning Republicans need a net gain of six seats in November to win the majority.
Montana displays bipartisan tendencies in its voting patterns. Baucus, Bullock and Tester are Democrats. In the 2012 presidential election, Republican Mitt Romney won 55 percent of the Montana vote.
In the Senate, Baucus’s confirmation will begin a series of changes in committee leadership, which may in turn lead to shifts in policy areas including taxes and energy.
Baucus’s departure as Finance Committee chairman will elevate Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden to lead the panel, probably slowing efforts to revise the U.S. tax code.
Wyden reiterated yesterday he wants to talk with fellow senators before considering Baucus’s proposal to put future trade deals on a fast track to congressional approval. He also told reporters he wants to renew dozens of tax breaks that lapsed at the end of 2013.
Wyden, who now leads the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, will be replaced as that panel’s chairman by Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat and supporter of the oil and natural gas industries.
Landrieu, regarded as one of the most vulnerable Senate incumbents seeking re-election this year, will be aided by being able to advance legislation benefiting a home-state industry, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the panel, told reporters that she and Landrieu spoke on the Senate floor yesterday about an agenda that is still taking shape.
On China, Baucus said at his confirmation hearing that he would cooperate with that country on threats by North Korea’s nuclear program.
He said he would address China’s Nov. 23 declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, covering areas claimed by Japan and South Korea. That action led to a rebuke by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Baucus also said both nations must collaborate on curbing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Baucus brings a strong understanding of trade issues to the diplomatic job, said Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
“Economics is a key component of the bilateral relationship, and he will assume the role of ambassador with more knowledge of the trade and investment relationship than any of his predecessors,” Lardy said.