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WASHINGTON — President Obama intends to nominate Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., as ambassador to China, Democratic officials said Wednesday, turning to a lawmaker well-versed in trade issues to fill one of the nation’s most sensitive diplomatic posts.

If confirmed by the Senate, Baucus would replace Ambassador Gary Locke, the former Washington governor who said last month that he was stepping down.

An official announcement of Baucus’ appointment could come Thursday.

His departure from the Senate would have an instant impact on one of Congress’ most powerful committees and on the 2014 election for control of Congress. Under state law, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock can name a Senate successor to serve until the election, and speculation immediately turned to a fellow Democrat, Lt. Gov. John Walsh, already a candidate for a full term.

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Baucus, 72, sidestepped questions about the ambassadorship when asked in the Capitol. “It’s not for me to comment on. … This happens every once in a while. Names get floated around.”

There was no immediate comment from the Obama administration on the disclosure by officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Obama wants a new top diplomat in Beijing for a so-called Asia pivot in U.S. foreign policy to more directly counter China after untangling U.S. focus on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The relationship between the two nations has grown more troubled in recent weeks, with Chinese authorities unilaterally declaring an air-defense zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea. The United States subsequently flew a pair of B-52 bombers through the space last month without incident to show solidarity with ally Japan, which claims the territory. Vice President Joe Biden’s recent trip through Asia aimed to calm disputes.

Baucus, who announced in April he was retiring at the end of his term, was elected to the Senate in 1978 and since 2007 has been chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over taxes, trade, health care and more.

Baucus has pressed both Democratic and Republican administrations to take a harder line against what he calls unfair Chinese trade practices. The country has the largest trade surplus of any nation with the U.S., and American manufacturers claim it is manipulating its currency to maintain that imbalance.

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