The U.S. Senate confirmed President Donald Trump’s pick as top trade negotiator, clearing the way for the administration to reset relations starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement, and accelerate more broadly plans to reorient American trade policy.
While most of President Donald Trump’s nominees have cleared a divided Congress by narrow margins with mainly Republican support, Mr. Lighthizer on Thursday 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.
Some of Lighthizer’s strongest support came from Democratic lawmakers.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the committee overseeing trade policy, [Finance Committee] 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.
Two Republican senators said late Wednesday they would oppose Lighthizer. Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.) said in a letter to Lighthizer that his confirmation process had failed to reassure them that he understands the economic benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. They also cited his “vocal advocacy for protectionist shifts in our trade policies.” Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner joined them as the third Republican voting against the nomination Thursday.
Trade law has blocked the administration from launching NAFTA 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.
Mr. Lighthizer, 69 years old, is a Washington trade-policy veteran, having worked as a staffer for the Senate Finance 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.
Senate confirms Lighthizer as trade representative, Washington Post, May 11, 2017
Lighthizer approval as trade rep paves way for NAFTA Talks, Bloomberg, May 12, 2017
Senate Confirms Robert Lighthizer as Trump’s U.S. Trade Representative, Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2017