WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump's nominee to be U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, said Tuesday that he was "awaiting instructions" from Trump on whether to support a restoration of the Export-Import Bank's full lending powers.
The U.S. government trade bank's loans have been capped at $10 million for more than a year because it has too few board members, with Republican opponents to the bank blocking recent nominees. The cap means that EXIM cannot finance the largest export U.S. products such as Boeing Co. aircraft or Westinghouse nuclear reactors.
Asked by Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, at his confirmation hearing whether he supported nominating new board members at the bank as part of a broad trade strategy aimed at reducing U.S. trade deficits and boosting exports, Lighthizer said that decision would ultimately be up to Trump.
"I expect to do what the president instructs me to do when he instructs me to do it," said Lighthizer, a former USTR deputy in the Reagan administration and a steel industry trade lawyer.
Conservative Republicans in Congress have tried to kill EXIM because they view it as providing unnecessary "corporate welfare" and putting U.S. taxpayers at risk for foreign projects.
'America first' on trade
Lighthizer also said Tuesday 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 told the Senate Finance Committee.
Lighthizer has criticized some Republicans for being too pro-free trade. Nevertheless, free-trade Republicans on the committee praised Lighthizer at his confirmation hearing.
"Mr. Lighthizer is indisputably qualified to serve as USTR, and I believe he has a strong base of bipartisan support," said Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who chairs the committee. "If we keep this process focused on Mr. Lighthizer and the position he has been nominated to fill, there is no reason he should not be approved by this committee and confirmed by the Senate in short order."
Trump has broken with most Republicans in his criticism of free-trade agreements. He pulled the U.S. out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership pact and has said he will renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
NAFTA was negotiated by President Bill Clinton. It was ratified by the Senate with broad Republican support.
Trump has said he would ink one-on-one trade deals with individual countries. Trump has also signaled a tough stance on trade with China, including levying a hefty tariff on Chinese imports.
Some information for this report came from AP.