By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to approve President Barack Obama's nomination of Senator Max Baucus, who has helped steer trade policy with China, as ambassador to Beijing.
The Senate voted 96-0, with Baucus voting present, to confirm the 72-year-old Montana Democrat to the high-profile appointment.
Baucus holds one of the most powerful positions in the Senate as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax and trade policy. He took a firm stance against some of China's trade practices but also led successful U.S. efforts in the 1990s to help China's admission to the World Trade Organization and to begin normal trade relations with Beijing.
During Baucus' confirmation hearing last week, senators expressed concerns about China's territorial ambitions and urged him to take a tough line with Beijing. Baucus said he would be "fair, but firm.
Baucus has little direct experience with the security and military issues that are a growing concern in U.S. relations with China.
In an emotional farewell speech after the confirmation vote, Baucus promised to build a stronger relationship with China. "The relationship between the U.S. and China is one of the most important in the world, and we, both China and the United States, need to get it right," he said.
Both Republicans and Democrats made speeches praising Baucus, who has been a senator since December 1978.
His departure sets off a shift in leadership of at least two important Senate committees.
Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden is expected to be the new leader of Senate Finance Committee, leaving his current position as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Wyden would likely be succeeded there by Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, an energy-producing state where that position could boost her challenging bid for re-election this year.
Montana Governor Steve Bullock has not yet said whom he will appoint as temporary successor to fill Baucus' seat until his term expires in January 2015. Since Bullock is also a Democrat, the appointment should not shift the balance of power in the Senate, where Democrats control 55 of the 100 seats.
The race for Baucus' seat in November is seen as one of the keys that will determine whether Obama's fellow Democrats will keep their Senate majority after the election. Baucus and Jon Tester, Montana's other senator, are both Democrats, but the state backs Republicans in presidential elections.
Baucus, seen as a moderate Democrat, had announced his intention to retire from the Senate at the end of 2014, well before Obama nominated him for the Beijing post last month.
He succeeds Gary Locke, who served as Obama's secretary of commerce before becoming the U.S. envoy in Beijing.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Sandra Maler, Peter Cooney and Mohammad Zargham)