Obama Commerce pick sets up showdown on trade with Senate GOP

President Obama’s nomination Tuesday of John Bryson as secretary of the Department of Commerce immediately triggered battles with congressional Republicans on trade and the environment.

By nominating a former CEO who has extensive ties to corporate America as secretary of Commerce, Obama continued his aggressive courtship of the business community, which began almost immediately after Democrats lost their House majority last year.

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Yet Senate Republicans quickly warned that Bryson’s nomination would be stuck until the administration sends Congress legislation implementing three trade deals, with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

Other Republican lawmakers took Bryson to task for his work with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which he co-founded at the beginning of his career. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called him a “green evangelist,” while Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) warned he might place a hold on the nomination.

Bryson is the former CEO and chairman of Edison International, an electricity company, and he serves as a director for two of the nation’s most powerful companies, Boeing and the Walt Disney Co.

At a White House ceremony during which the nomination was announced, Obama praised Bryson, 67, as “somebody who will bring to this job a wealth of experience both in the private and public sectors,” and as “a business leader who understands what it is to innovate.”

The fight over trade represents the first hurdle for Bryson’s nomination. 

The administration supports all three deals, but has refused to send them to Congress until Republicans agree to extend the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which provides healthcare and economic assistance to workers who lose their jobs because of increased trade. Business groups have called for both the trade agreements and assistance program to be approved.

Forty-four Republican senators, however, signed a letter to Obama earlier this year warning they would use “all the tools at our disposal to force action” on the trade deals, “including withholding support for any nominee for Commerce secretary and any trade-related nominees.”

As Obama was announcing Bryson’s nomination, an aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned the White House through an email to reporters that the GOP demand still stood. 

Since only 41 votes would be needed to hold up the nomination, Republicans can easily back up their demands. 

White House press secretary Jay Carney repeated Tuesday that Obama supports the proposed trade deals, and said it would be “folly” to hold up the nomination to fill a critical economic post.

Issa’s attack served notice that Bryson’s time at the environmental group could also lead to objections.

“With gas prices at nearly $4 a gallon, it’s certainly eye-catching that President Obama has nominated a founder of an organization that opposes efforts to increase domestic oil production to serve as the nation’s key advocate for our economic interests,” Issa said in a statement. “The nomination of John Bryson to lead the Department of Commerce seems deeply out of touch with our current energy challenge.”

Carney said Bryson’s breadth of experience, including the work he did for nonprofit environmental groups, is what led Obama to believe Bryson is the best person for the job.

If he is confirmed, Bryson would join former JPMorgan Chase executive William Daley at the White House. Obama named Daley as the successor to former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as the White House began an effort to reach out to business groups. The pattern continued when General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt was named to lead Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

Bryson’s nomination is also interesting because of his ties to Boeing, which is at the center of a high-profile labor fight with the administration.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in April filed a complaint that Boeing was opening a plant in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, instead of adding a production line in Washington state because of fears of a strike. 

Republicans and business groups have criticized the administration for the decision, with some seizing on the ruling to argue the administration is anti-business. Republicans have pressured the White House to rebuke the NLRB, something Obama has avoided.

Bryson would replace Gary Locke, whom Obama nominated to be ambassador to China. The ambassador’s job opened up after former Utah governor and presumed GOP presidential contender Jon Huntsman resigned from the position and returned to the United States.

Bryson is also a director at Coda Automotive and a senior adviser to Kolberg Kravis & Roberts.

Aside from his work at the NRDC, Bryson served on a United Nations energy advisory group.

NRDC President Frances Beinecke hailed Bryson’s nomination and noted his expertise on energy issues.

“As one of the founders of NRDC, John Bryson is a visionary leader in promoting a clean environment and a strong economy. He has long recognized the benefits of efficiency and renewable energy technologies, and he understands the critical need for us to continue investing in them,” Beinecke said in a statement.

Bryson has a history of donating to Democrats and to a few Republicans. According to opensecrets.org, Bryson has donated to Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), as well as former Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and John Spratt (D-S.C.), both of whom have retired.

He has also donated to Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who switched to the Democratic Party in 2009 but was a Republican when Bryson made his donation.

— Erik Wasson and Vicki Needham contributed to this report.

This story was first posted at 11:32 a.m. and last updated at 8:37 p.m.