Updated 3:51 p.m. | Sen. Max Baucus may have provided an awkward sound bite during his confirmation hearing Tuesday morning, but there's no way it imperils the Montana Democrat's sure confirmation to serve as ambassador to China.
At one point, Baucus said, "I'm no real expert on China," a non-serious statement that was quickly clipped on YouTube. Political operatives also were tweeting the quote.
Baucus' office called the quip "simply a moment of humility."
"The Senator was being humble, that is the Montana way," an aide said.
Still, neither that offhand comment nor some criticism from Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain would dampen the mood. That Baucus is on the fast track to be approved to go to China has been no secret since President Barack Obama first nominated the already retiring lawmaker to the key overseas post.
Baucus' nomination hearing will no doubt be overshadowed by Obama's State of the Union address, but you couldn't tell that from inside a packed Dirksen Building hearing room Tuesday morning. The video cameras came and went, and a number of senators actually remained on the dais throughout the hearing.
"The key challenge you will face as ambassador, should you be confirmed — and I'm sure you will — is how to recognize the strategic and economic realities unfolding with the rise of China. You will play an integral role in re-conceptualizing the problems we face and how to turn them into opportunities," Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said in his opening statement. "In my view, the strategic decision by the Obama administration during its first term described as a 'rebalance to Asia' was absolutely right."
Baucus was at times noncommittal when asked specific questions. That happened during one such exchange with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Rubio asked Baucus if he might commit to visit an unregistered church, but the Montanan said effectiveness would be a primary concern. He also worked around a question from Rubio about whether the U.S. embassy in Beijing should literally serve as an "island of freedom" for those involved in the Chinese pro-democracy movement and others against the current government.
"Clearly the United States symbolically is an island of freedom. You asked to some degree the specific question should it physically — should the embassy. That is a question I am going to have to take back to, and work with the administration on," Baucus said.
McCain at one point issued a bit of a shot across the bow about how to view the intentions of the Chinese government.
"The Chinese leadership has a sense of history that they believe that the last 200 years was an aberration, and that China has to be the leader and the dominant force in Asia, and you have to appreciate that if you're going to deal with them," McCain said, referring to the threat of "another 'Guns of August,'" Barbara W. Tuchman's book about the outbreak of World War I.
By and large, the hearing was positive, with Menendez saying he planned to hold a business meeting to advance the nomination on Feb. 4. Baucus highlighted his trade experience, as well as his very first trip to China. "My fascination with China goes back 50 years to my days as a college student at Stanford. I was a young man who grew up on a ranch outside Helena, Montana, full of youthful idealism and curiosity, and so I packed a backpack, took a year off from my studies, and hitchhiked around the world. I set out to visit countries I had only imagined — India, Japan, and China, to name a few," Baucus said in his opening statement.