Senate confirms Trump's chief trade negotiator

Senate confirms Trump's chief trade negotiator
© Greg Nash

The Senate on Thursday easily confirmed President Trump’s nominee for United States trade representative.

After months of delays, Robert Lighthizer sailed through in an 82-14 confirmation vote.

The bulk of the Trump administration’s trade agenda has been in a holding pattern, leaving issues such as the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the direction of future global deals up in the air while Lightizer waited for Senate approval.

On April 25, the Senate Finance Committee unanimously advanced his nomination as part of a bipartisan agreement to consider coal miners’ benefits legislation.

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Democrats on the panel also wanted a waiver for Lighthizer's nomination because he had worked for foreign governments on trade in the 1980s and 1990s.

The waiver and the coal miners' benefits landed in the fiscal 2017 omnibus spending bill Congress passed last week. 

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin HatchSenate panel advances Trump's tax policy nominee Healthcare debacle raises pressure for GOP on taxes GOP frets over stalled agenda MORE (R-Utah) highlighted Lighthizer’s experience in trade policy.

“Mr. Lighthizer’s years of experience in public service, including as staff director for the Senate Finance Committee, as deputy USTR during the Reagan administration, and in private practice make him extremely well qualified to serve as our nation’s trade representative,” Hatch said on the Senate floor.

Hatch also said he had made clear to Lighthizer the importance of the trade rep consulting with Congress on trade promotion authority.

“The USTR is Congress’s first and most important point of contact when it comes to trade policy,” Hatch said.

Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenTrump and GOP wise to keep tax reform and infrastructure separate Dem senator questions Justice Department on warrantless surveillance FCC says it cannot provide more proof of claimed cyberattack MORE (Ore.), Finance’s top Democrat, criticized the Trump administration for trade strategy that “amounts to a muddle of 140-character tweets, mixed messages and overhyped announcements that are backed by little substance."

Wyden said Lighthizer knows what real progress on trade means.

“It is clear that Mr. Lighthizer not only understands how the global trading system works, but also how it sometimes breaks down,” Wyden said. 

“He understands the U.S. role in the world, and he understands the challenges that trade cheats pose for American workers and businesses.”

Although Lighthizer's nomination was never in jeopardy of failing, he did face some opposition. 

Republican Sens. John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: Trump gets briefing at Pentagon on ISIS, Afghanistan | Senate panel approves five defense picks | Senators want Syria study in defense bill Schwarzenegger tweets to McCain: 'You'll be back' Trump called McCain to wish him well after cancer diagnosis MORE (Ariz.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.) said they would have to oppose his nomination because “your confirmation process has failed to reassure us that you understand the North American Free Trade Agreement’s positive economic benefits to our respective States and the nation as a whole."

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles SchumerLawmakers send McCain well wishes after cancer diagnosis OPINION | GOP's 7-year ObamaCare blood oath ends in failure Dems tout failure of GOP healthcare bill MORE (D-N.Y.) said while he supported Lighthizer, he couldn’t vote to confirm him because of all that has happened this week with the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

Still, the 69-year-old Lighthizer landed plenty of bipartisan support. 

Ohio Sens. Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownGOP Senate candidate attacks Anti-Defamation League for ‘witchhunt' on far right Senate Banking leaders introduce flood insurance bill Major progressive group endorses Martha McSally challenger MORE (D) and Rob PortmanRob PortmanRegulatory experts push Senate leaders for regulatory reform Conservative group to give GOP healthcare holdouts ‘Freedom Traitors Award’ Source: Senate leaders to offer 0 billion to win over moderates MORE (R) each supported Lighthizer saying he will play a key role in forming trade policy and representing the U.S. in cases against foreign countries who violate trade laws. 

Brown and Portman have vowed to work with Lighthizer to boost Ohio’s steel industry, a frequent talking point of Trump.

“Bob knows our steel industry, knows the importance of our manufacturing sector, and knows our failed trade policy has left Ohio workers behind,” said Brown, who called Lighthizer shortly after the vote.

Portman, a former U.S. trade representative, said he is “confident” that Lighthizer “will work to protect American workers from foreign trade cheats and I look forward to seeing him succeed as our next trade representative.”

Lighthizer also garnered a wide range of support across trade groups from agriculture to technology.

Craig Uden, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association president, called on Lighthizer to “prioritize trade with Asian markets by focusing efforts on restoring U.S. beef access to China and by establishing a bilateral trade agreement with Japan.”

American Soybean Association (ASA) President and Illinois farmer Ron Moore said “Lighthizer’s confirmation to USTR is an encouraging step in developing trade policies that continue to promote U.S. food and agriculture production."

“As we urge prudence on any trade negotiations or renegotiations, Lighthizer’s confirmation will allow the U.S. to engage on trade negations that will benefit all Americans though economic growth and job creation,” Moore said. 

Joel Newman, president and CEO of the American Feed Industry Association, said his group looks "forward to working with him to keep agricultural trade issues a top priority." 

"NAFTA, currently under the limelight, will be at the top of our list as the Trump administration moves forward with its plans to renegotiate the agreement's terms with Canada and Mexico," Newman said. 

Steve Simchak, director of International Affairs for the American Insurance Association (AIA), said his group looks forward “to learning more about the administration’s trade agenda for the financial services industry and working with him to advance the interests of U.S. insurers and reinsurers globally.”

BSA The Software Alliance said they are encouraged by Lighthizer’s recognition of the importance of cross-border data flows and digital trade rules. 

“Data is critical to the global economy, in the U.S. alone, the software that powers the data economy contributes $1 trillion to the GDP, supports almost 10 million jobs, and generates $52 billion in R&D investment," the group said in a statement. 

This story was updated at 4:38 p.m.