Senate Finance takes step on Trump's trade nominee

Senate Finance takes step on Trump's trade nominee
© Greg Nash

President Trump's nominee to become the next U.S. Trade Representative remains stalled as lawmakers try to resolve a dispute over a congressional waiver Democrats argue is needed for the Senate to approve Robert Lighthizer.

Senate Finance Committee Democrats and Republicans are sparring over whether the full Senate can vote on Lighthizer's nomination without the waiver because the former deputy trade representative did trade work for China and Brazil in the 1980s and 1990s.

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Democrats also are using the waiver issue as leverage to attach a measure providing healthcare and pension benefits for retired coal miners, which is set to expire at the end of the month.

Ranking member Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenBiden comments add momentum to spending bill's climate measures  These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans MORE (D-Ore.) said that "as a legal matter" Lighthizer's previous work for foreign governments makes him “ineligible” to lead USTR.

“Speaking for Democrats, we are willing to work with Republicans to provide a statutory exception for Mr. Lighthizer, but we also insist that Republicans work with Democrats to provide a lifeline to America’s hardworking mineworkers who face losing their healthcare and retirement benefits,” Wyden said at Tuesday's confirmation hearing. 

But Finance Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchMeet Washington's most ineffective senator: Joe Manchin Lobbying world Congress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage MORE (R-Utah) expressed frustration over Democrats’ insistence to connect the waiver with the unrelated coal miners bill. 

“I have stated publicly that I am willing to work with ranking member Wyden and others on the committee who believe a waiver is necessary,”  Hatch said.

“But, I’ll be honest, at this point, it appears that my colleagues’ insistence on the waiver at the committee level has more to do with their demands for an unrelated ransom than any concern about the applicability of the statute,” he said. 

“I hope I’m wrong about that.”

Hatch has repeatedly argued that the waiver isn’t necessary. 

“Mr. Lighthizer does not believe that his work falls within this statute, nor do I,” Hatch said. “The Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice has indicated that they share that opinion. So, it’s not at all clear that a waiver under the 1995 statute is necessary in Mr. Lighthizer’s case.”

Otherwise, in a rare display of solidarity on Trump nominees, the two parties largely support the former Finance panel staffer, deputy U.S. trade representative and the 69-year-old Washington trade lawyer.

Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Biden calls Intel's B investment to build chip factories a tool for economic recovery Democrats see good chance of Garland prosecuting Trump MORE (D-Ohio), who expressed support for Lighthizer, said he hopes the waiver issue is solved before the committee votes.

The confirmation hearing, delayed a few hours because of inclement weather in Washington, touched on a wide range of trade policy issues from the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to China policy and trade enforcement. 

Lighthizer said the Trump administration is “eager to engage quickly” on reworking NAFTA done although the timeline for beginning consultations remains unclear.

"The stated objective is to do this as quickly as possible,” he told the committee.

There also is no decision yet on whether to keep all three nations — the U.S., Mexico and Canada — in NAFTA or break off into two bilateral agreements.

Known as a tough and at times brash negotiator, Lighthizer acknowledged that the Obama administration had made significant strides with the Trans-Pacific Partnership that could provide a framework for updating the more than 20-year-old NAFTA deal.

"I think Ambassador [Michael] Froman did a remarkable job on a variety of areas and that we should take advantage of that work.” Lighthizer said on how TPP could aid the NAFTA renegotiation.

On the remnants of TPP, which Trump withdrew from in January, the U.S. would likely move to craft a series of bilateral agreements with those 11 Asia-Paciific countries and "take and improve upon what was negotiated in some cases very well by Ambassador Froman,” he said.

On other issues, Lighthizer would not say whether he supports the Export-Import Bank.

“At this point I’m awaiting instructions,” he told the panel.

He acknowledged that there are strong opinions in favor and in opposition of Ex-Im but said he would “do what Trump tells him to do.”

Last month, Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn Heitkamp11 former Democratic senators call for 'meaningful reform to Senate rules' Harry Reid, political pugilist and longtime Senate majority leader, dies Virginia loss lays bare Democrats' struggle with rural voters MORE (D-N.D.) said Trump told her during at meeting at the White House that he backs the restoration of full lending powers Ex-Im, a reversal of his stance during the campaign.

While Trump and other officials in his administration have pegged trade deficits as a major problem and a sign that the U.S. has repeatedly signed bad trade deals, Lighthizer took a more academic approach.

He said he looks at each trade deal and what those deficits tell him about the trade rules of that country and would act from there. 

Lighthizer told the committee he is committed to strong trade enforcement, including providing upward of $15 million for a trade enforcement fund.

Protecting intellectual property in nations like India where U.S. businesses have argued that major problems abound also is a top priority for the Trump administration, he said. 

"We absolutely will expect to have a rigorous enforcement policy," he told the panel. 

The longtime trade lawyer said he agrees with Trump's America first trade policy saying that "we can do better in negotiating our trade agreements and stronger in enforcing our trade laws."

He also vowed to make a U.S.-Canada dispute over softwood lumber a top priority — a top issue for Wyden — and work across the administration with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Trump's chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and head of a new trade initiative Peter Narvarro on trade policy.

"I expect to bring as many actions as are justified both at the World Trade Organization and in our bilateral agreements, this will be a point of emphasis," he said.

"I think the president asked me to do this job in part because of my enforcement background and I expect to do it across the board."