President Donald Trump's nominee to be U.S. trade representative easily cleared a Senate hurdle Thursday despite clear frustration among some Republicans with the administration on trade.
The Senate voted 81-15 to advance Robert Lighthizer's nomination. A final confirmation vote could come as early as Thursday afternoon.
Lighthizer served in the Reagan administration and has worked on trade issues as a lawyer representing various manufacturers and high-tech companies. He will take his cues from a president who has broken with most Republicans in his criticism of free trade agreements and who has spread the work on trade policy beyond the trade representative.
Two Republican senators said late Wednesday they would oppose Lighthizer, in what was a broadside against the administration's “ongoing, incoherent and inconsistent trade message.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska said in a two-page letter to Lighthizer that his confirmation process had failed to reassure them he understands the economic benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
The senators said they doubted that Lighthizer would, if confirmed, champion agriculture and negotiate trade deals to the benefit of American consumers and the economy.
“Beyond your vocal advocacy for protectionist shifts in our trade policies, the administration's ongoing, incoherent, and inconsistent trade message has compounded our concern,” they wrote.
Trump nearly bailed on NAFTA. He repeatedly derided the 1994 pact during the campaign as the worst trade deal ever and mocked his Democratic presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, for her support for the agreement. President Bill Clinton signed it into law in 1993.
McCain and Sasse said Lighthizer has made his skepticism of NAFTA well-known, “which we find to be alarming.” They said the United States deserves a trade representative “who will renegotiate NAFTA in order to build on its successes, not as a pretext for unraveling it.''
Lighthizer has criticized some Republicans for being too pro-free trade. He told a Senate panel this year that the U.S. should have an ``America first trade policy.''
“We can do better in negotiating our trade agreements and stronger in enforcing our trade laws,” he said.
Trump's tough talk on trade has drawn support from states with a large percentage of manufacturing workers. But some farm groups are worried about how withdrawing from an Asia-Pacific trade deal and reworking other trade pacts could hurt sales of U.S.-produced beef, poultry and grains.
To help address that concern, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Thursday created a top post within the department to oversee trade and foreign agricultural affairs.