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U.S. Senate panel approves Sen. Max Baucus as ambassador to China

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved on Tuesday the nomination of Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who has helped steer trade policy with China, to be the next U.S. ambassador to Beijing.

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The unanimous voice vote cleared the way for a vote on Baucus' confirmation in the U.S. Senate, where he is also expected to win approval.

That vote could take place as soon as Thursday, a committee spokesman said.

The 72-year-old six-term senator is currently chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax and trade policy. He has little direct experience with the security and military issues that are a growing concern in U.S. relations with China.

During his confirmation hearing last week, senators expressed concerns about China's territorial ambitions and urged Baucus to take a tough line with Beijing. Baucus said he would be "fair, but firm."

Baucus, seen as a moderate Democrat, had announced his intention to retire from the Senate at the end of 2014 well before President Barack Obama nominated him for the Beijing post last month.

Baucus would succeed Gary Locke, who served as Obama's Secretary of Commerce before becoming the U.S. envoy in Beijing.