WASHINGTON – The Senate Thursday confirmed Robert Lighthizer to serve as U.S. Trade Representative, paving the way for the Trump administration to launch a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and accelerate more broadly plans to reorient American trade policy.
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While most of President Donald Trump's nominees have cleared a divided Congress by narrow margins with mainly Republican support, Mr. Lighthizer won significant backing from Democrats as well. That is a sign that, even as the opposition party battles the White House on much of its agenda, they are eager to work with Mr. Trump to beef up trade enforcement to curb imports and pry open foreign markets -- and to craft policies aimed at curbing the U.S. trade deficit.
The vote was 82-14. Three Republicans joined 10 Democrats and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in voting no.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the committee overseeing trade policy, took to the floor before the vote to express his support, saying "It is clear that Mr. Lighthizer not only understands how the global trading system works, but also how it sometimes breaks down...He understands the challenges that trade cheats pose for American workers and businesses."
Republicans, in contrast, were more wary of the nominee and the policy shift his confirmation heralds. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, also backed Mr. Lighthizer but openly voiced concerns about the changes the new administration may try to make to Nafta, which has wide support from the American business community and states near the Mexican border. "I told Mr. Lighthizer there are definitely opportunities to update and improve Nafta, but it is important that the administration follow the spirit of the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm," Mr. Hatch said on the Senate floor.
In contrast with many other Trump appointees who have had little prior experience in government Mr. Lighthizer, 69 years old, is a Washington trade-policy veteran, having worked as a staffer for the Senate trade committee and as a deputy United States Trade Representative under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. In those roles he was a free-trade skeptic, and helped to negotiate trade agreements aimed at curbing Japanese imports.
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"I would slash the 'free' out of free trade and say trade is an expedient," he told The Wall Street Journal in a 1996 interview when he was serving as a campaign strategist for Republican presidential nominee Robert Dole.
Mr. Lighthizer was most recently a Washington partner at law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, where he represented steelmakers and other manufacturers seeking government protection from cheaper imports.
One of his first acts will likely be to begin negotiations with Mexico and Canada to rewrite the 23-year-old Nafta, which Mr. Trump has branded "a disaster," and which he has been eager to overhaul since taking office in January.
Trade law has blocked the administration from launching those talks without a confirmed trade representative, so Mr. Lighthizer's confirmation will now allow the process to move forward. Even so, the administration must submit a 90-day notice to Congress before negotiations can formally begin, so talks won't start until late summer at the earliest.
Beyond Nafta, Mr. Lighthizer is expected to help Mr. Trump flesh out the "America First" trade policy that was a main plank of his nationalist presidential campaign.
So far, Mr. Trump has done little to carry out the pledge, other than to withdraw from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated by President Barack Obama. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has so far taken the lead shaping trade policy in Mr. Lighthizer's absence, and has launched a series of studies and investigations that could ultimately lead to a harder-edged trade policy, but it is still unclear where they will lead.
During his confirmation hearings in mid-March, Mr. Lighthizer said he would look for ways to take more aggressive action to confront China, and reiterated his longstanding skepticism about the ability of the World Trade Organization to handle Chinese trade practices in a manner he considers fair. Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Lighthizer have suggested rethinking American compliance with the WTO decisions, a threat that has unnerved many U.S. trading partners, as well as American free-trade advocates and multinationals.
Mr. Trump's own administration has been torn by tensions between one-time business leaders, like former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. President Gary Cohn, who runs the White House National Economic Council, and trade hawks like economist Peter Navarro, who runs a newly created Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy. Mr. Lighthizer is seen as helping tip the balance more toward the trade hard-liners like Mr. Navarro and Mr. Ross, though his longstanding expertise in trade policy is also expected to lead him to encourage taking a more aggressive stance in using existing rules, rather than blowing them up.
Still, the calls by Mr. Trump and Mr. Lighthizer to rethink the Republican Party's free-trade orientation has drawn opposition from some GOP members. On Wednesday, two Republicans -- John McCain of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska -- released a joint letter saying they would vote against Mr. Lighthizer, citing his "vocal advocacy for protectionist shifts in our trade policies." Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner joined them as third Republican voting against the nomination Thursday.
"His views on trade and mine are very different," Mr. McCain said shortly before casting his no vote.
Mr. Lighthizer is the last of Mr. Trump's cabinet-level appointments to win Senate confirmation. His nomination was held up for weeks because of congressional wrangling over his need for a special waiver to fill the slot, due to work he did three decades ago as a lobbyist for the Brazilian government during a trade dispute with U.S. industry. The waiver passed in late April, clearing the way for the Thursday vote.
Write to Jacob M. Schlesinger at firstname.lastname@example.org and Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 11, 2017 15:46 ET (19:46 GMT)