New U.S. Trade Rep Lighthizer Lays Groundwork for Nafta Talks

The Trump administration's new U.S. trade representative began laying the groundwork for a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement on his first full day on the job.

Robert Lighthizer, a longtime Washington lawyer and former U.S. trade official, on Tuesday briefed the Senate Finance Committee on efforts to begin talks on overhauling Nafta. Officials are required to consult with Congress and deliver a letter informing Congress at least 90 days before formal talks can begin with Mexico and Canada if any final deal is to get expedited consideration on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Lighthizer declined to answer questions after the closed-door briefing, but Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said more consultations are needed before issuing the notification letter. "We would love to notify Congress as soon as they're ready," he said.

Mr. Trump vowed to revolutionize U.S. trade policy and has threatened to rip up Nafta and to apply tariffs or other measures to block imports or reduce the trade deficit. Mr. Trump's rhetoric on trade is often more aligned with the stances of Democratic lawmakers, many of whom are skeptical of U.S. trade agreements, but presidents have relied mostly on Republican votes to pass trade deals in Congress.

Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said the administration appeared more receptive to Republican concerns, including prioritizing agricultural trade in Nafta, than previously.

The other Ohio senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown, is pressing Trump officials to tilt the 23-year-old trade pact more toward workers' priorities, including by adding "Buy American" provisions and scrapping an arbitration system that allows investors in one country to challenge governments from another.

"There are a lot of people who don't want to see many changes to Nafta," he said after the briefing. "Most Republicans like Nafta the way it is."

Write to William Mauldin at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 16, 2017 21:25 ET (01:25 GMT)