Max Baucus. Pic: AP.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama intends to nominate Sen. Max Baucus 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, who announced last month he was stepping down.

The Montanan’s 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 has the authority to name a Senate successor to serve until the election, and speculation immediately turned to a fellow Democrat, Lt. Gov. John Walsh.

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 White House on the disclosure, which was made by officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the nomination publicly before a formal announcement.

Kathy Weber, a spokeswoman in Baucus’ office, declined to confirm the move but said, “Max has given his life to public service and when asked to serve he takes that request very seriously.”

Obama is in search of a new top diplomat in Beijing as he executes a so-called Asia pivot in U.S. foreign policy to more directly counter China after the 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, and Vice President Joe Biden sought to calm matters on his recent trip through Asia.

Baucus was first elected to the Senate in 1978 and since early 2007 has been chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. On some key issues, he has pursued a more moderate approach than some fellow Democrats would prefer, a reminder that he hails from a rural, Western state.

The panel has jurisdiction over taxes, trade, health care and more. As committee chairman, Baucus has pressed both Democratic and Republican administrations to take a harder line against what he says are 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.