Trump's Trade Nominee Robert Lighthizer Clears Senate Committee

By William Mauldin Features Dow Jones Newswires

President Donald Trump's nominee for U.S. trade representative cleared a Senate committee on Tuesday, bringing the administration a step closer toward its plan to overhaul international trade policy.

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The Senate Finance Committee voted 26-0 to advance Washington trade lawyer Robert Lighthizer. It also unanimously approved a waiver that Democrats say is needed to allow him to serve in the position, which spearheads trade policy, coordinates with Congress and leads overseas negotiations.

Mr. Lighthizer has frequently represented steel firms and other U.S. companies seeking protection from alleged dumping from foreign competitors and foreign subsidies. In a hearing this year he said he'd work with Congress on new tools to rein in what he sees as unfairly traded Chinese imports, and he has signaled he would use tough tools against trading partners even if they run afoul of the World Trade Organization.

Mr. Lighthizer's nomination had been held up for months over the waiver, needed because he represented foreign governments decades ago, before a law that prevents nominees from becoming trade representative after representing a foreign government in a trade dispute with the U.S.

But the Senate committee didn't fully resolve an unrelated, separate issue -- a debate over benefits for retired miners -- that Democrats have linked to Mr. Lighthizer's nomination and waiver. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the committee's top Democrat, said he hopes both the waiver and miners legislation will be resolved as a part of legislation to maintain funding for the federal government, expected in coming days.

"We're going to have a big problem if Congress doesn't keep to its promise on coal miners," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio.

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Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), a defender of miners, attended the committee meeting and thanked its members for support on the issue, saying the Senate "basically" has a consensus that the miners need help before benefits expire at the end of the month.

If a broader deal is reached in Congress, Mr. Lighthizer could be confirmed by the full Senate in coming days. The new U.S. trade representative would then be able to consult with lawmakers about Mr. Trump's plans to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, and issue a formal notice informing Congress that negotiations on the pact could begin in 90 days.

Mr. Trump has complained repeatedly about congressional delays to his trade policy.

Mr. Lighthizer, who was once a senior staffer on the Finance Committee, enjoys broad bipartisan support in the Senate. Still, some defenders of free trade worry his career in trade cases will lead the Trump administration to pursue enforcement actions that end in tariffs on U.S. imports and potential retaliation from trading partners.

Write to William Mauldin at william.mauldin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 25, 2017 11:35 ET (15:35 GMT)