WASHINGTON — Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. needed very little of his diplomatic skill to move through one of the most critical stages of his Chinese ambassadorship confirmation.
He faced only a few questions Thursday from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his portion of the 1½-hour confirmation hearing. The questions included one from Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., suggesting China's exclusion of Mormon missionaries represents a double standard by the United States toward human rights.
Overall, the committee appeared supportive of Utah's governor. But a committee vote is not likely until Tuesday, at the earliest. It takes a vote of the full Senate to confirm a presidential nominee, and Huntsman is hoping that will happen before Congress recesses on Aug. 7.
That's likely to occur, said both Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett. If so, Huntsman said he plans to be in China in early or mid-August. He has said he will resign once he is confirmed so Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert can officially take over as governor.
In an abbreviated opening statement, Huntsman said it was a difficult decision for him and his family "to leave a state and a job that we love," and he thanked Utahns for their support and understanding. One of his top priorities in his new post, the governor said, will be repairing the global economy, in part by encouraging new technologies to combat climate change, as well as pushing China on human rights.
Webb, who presided over the hearing, noted that Huntsman had served a mission for the LDS Church in Taiwan, but China does not allow Mormon missionaries. Webb said he has long been concerned that the United States is not consistent with what it expects of China compared to other nations, such as Myanmar.
Huntsman answered without referring to the LDS Church, saying he wanted to "somehow regularize and systematize the way in which we talk about human rights, the way in which we talk about religious freedom," the rule of law, free speech and assembly, and the flow of information in China.
The governor told the committee that human rights "must be a central part of our ongoing discussions" with Chinese leaders, and he hoped to report back to Congress on his progress.
Neither Hatch nor Bennett said they expected Huntsman would be able to open up China to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionary program.
"It is a country that changes very slowly," Hatch told the Deseret News. "I think he will, over time, be able to soften some of their cultural aspect. I hope he can. But that's not going to be his major thrust. His major thrust is going to be to represent this administration."
Bennett, too, said Huntsman won't be in a position to change that or any other policy unless directed to do so by President Barack Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Bennett said the attitude of both Republican and Democratic administrations toward opening up countries to missionaries is "basically, 'Don't poke that hornet's nest unless you absolutely have to.' "
Huntsman was introduced to the committee by three Republican senators: Hatch, Bennett and John McCain of Arizona. But the accolades did not end with members of his own party.
The committee chairman, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., praised Huntsman's public service, including his time as a missionary.
Although traditionally, only the two senators from a nominee's home state appear before the committee, Huntsman invited his longtime friend McCain to appear on his behalf. The governor backed McCain's presidential bid, despite the popularity in Utah of another GOP contender, former 2002 Winter Olympics leader Mitt Romney.
McCain told the committee that Huntsman has "already made his mark as a leader and as a statesman" and said America will be honored by his service in what is probably the most critical country in the world.
After the former GOP presidential candidate spoke, Huntsman patted him on the back.
Both of Utah's senators also had praise for Huntsman.
Hatch said Obama made a wise decision in choosing Huntsman. "This is a time when a man like Governor Huntsman is needed on the world stage, and it is a time when he leaves Utah a better place for having served our state so well." Bennett reminded the committee Huntsman came "very, very close" to being named ambassador to China by former President George W. Bush.
In recent months, Huntsman appeared to be considering his own run for the White House in 2012. But in mid-May, the Democratic president announced he was turning to a Republican for what is considered the most important ambassador's post.
Since then, the governor has spent much of his time in Washington being prepped for the position and has turned over his public duties to Herbert. Huntsman has made only limited statements in the past two months and has granted no interviews.
Huntsman's family joined him at the hearing, including the young daughter he and his wife, Mary Kaye, adopted from China, Gracie Mei, and his father, billionaire industrialist and philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. The elder Huntsman said after the hearing that he was very proud of his son.
This was not the first Senate confirmation for the Utah governor, who speaks fluent Mandarin, learned for his LDS Church mission. Huntsman served in two past GOP presidential administrations as ambassador to Singapore and later, a U.S. trade representative to Asia where he negotiated agreements with China.
The morning hearing, which included the president's nominee to be ambassador to Japan, California lawyer and Democratic fundraiser John Roos, attracted both Chinese and Japanese reporters.
After the hearing, Huntsman offered a few words in Mandarin to the Chinese press, joking to the Utah reporters gathered that he'd told them, "Utah is the best state in America."