WASHINGTON — The Senate approved Rep. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) as U.S. Trade Representative Friday after a round of deal-making, paving the way for the top trade chief to attend an international meeting this week in an effort to revive stalled global trade talks aimed at further liberalizing commerce.
The Senate approved Portman’s nomination by voice vote after Republican leaders reached a deal with Sen. Evan Bayh (D., Ind.) to remove a hold he had placed on the nomination in an attempt to get a vote on a bill he co-sponsored that would penalize China and other nonmarket economies for subsidizing exports.
Portman, who has vowed to crack down on China by more aggressively enforcing trade agreements to protect U.S. jobs, said Friday he will “redouble” efforts to enforce U.S. trade laws and international trade agreements.
He succeeds Robert Zoellick, who became Condoleezza Rice’s top deputy at the State Department.
“Congressional approval of the Central American and Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement, China trade issues, the enforcement of existing agreements, keeping on pace the Doha [global trade] talks to lower trade barriers and our ongoing regional and bilateral trade negotiations, are all front-and-center issues for me,” Portman said in a statement after the Senate approved his nomination.
Portman will immerse himself immediately in his new role as the nation’s trade chief as he heads to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s meetings in Paris today through Wednesday. While there, he is expected to meet with his European counterparts and other leaders to discuss efforts on pushing forward global trade talks, which have been limping along since they collapsed in Cancún in September 2002.
As the new USTR, Portman will inherit one of the most definitive trade battles in Congress in a decade and the Bush administration is relying on his ability to reach across both sides of the aisle to help push the controversial CAFTA through. Portman also faces mounting pressure from Congressional lawmakers to aggressively push China toward reform in its monetary policies, subsidization of exports and intellectual property violations.
On the apparel and textile front, Portman will step into more pressure from House lawmakers calling for the imposition of quotas on apparel and textile imports from China, which have begun to rapidly rise since the Jan. 1 elimination of quotas by WTO nations.
As part of the deal with Bayh, Portman made a “personal commitment” that he will include a study of China’s system of subsidies as part of a broader review of the Asian nation’s trade policies, according to Bayh’s office. Bayh said in a statement that he hopes Portman’s study will provide evidence for the U.S. to take a more aggressive approach on cracking down on China’s illegal subsidies.
Another component of the deal was a commitment from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), who agreed to make Bayh’s legislation — the Stopping Overseas Subsidies Act — a key part of a hearing the committee will hold on U.S.-China trade issues by July 15.