Rob Portman: Man On The Hot Seat

If Rob Portman doesn't have a wallet full of frequent flyer cards, he soon will. Nominated by President George W. Bush as the next U.S. Trade Representative, the Republican congressman from Ohio will step into a whirlwind of U.S.-led negotiations. Grabbing headlines now is the dispute with Europe over government aid to Airbus. But that's just one wrangle of many. The biggest is the 148-nation talks within the World Trade Organization. Negotiations, already a year behind schedule, have foundered on divisions between rich and poor nations. Developing countries want the industrialized countries to give up their hefty farm subsidies so poor farmers elsewhere can compete. Rich nations insist that poor nations honor patents and copyrights, even if it means paying far more for pharmaceuticals and software.

To accomplish anything in the global talks, Portman, who is expected to easily win Senate confirmation in April, will first have to tamp down escalating tensions with Europe. There is seldom any progress made in global trade negotiations without the cooperation of the two economic giants. But the U.S. is threatening to take the European Union to the WTO trade court over government subsidies to Airbus, while the EU has threatened a countersuit, claiming that Boeing Co.'s (BA ) commercial aircraft production is being indirectly subsidized by its big military and space contracts. The 49-year-old former lawyer from Cincinnati has other sensitive disputes with Europe to mediate, including EU bans on imports of genetically modified food.

Portman also faces the challenge of melding the 34 democracies of the Americas into a free trade zone. With those negotiations also stalled, Portman will be expected to conclude bilateral and regional deals with Thailand, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Panama, and a dozen other countries. The idea is to pressure reluctant nations -- such as Brazil and India -- to bargain in the hemispheric and global talks by concluding free trade pacts with all their neighbors.

Portman's political connections helped him land the USTR job. He worked in the White House of President George H.W. Bush in 1989-91. A loyal Republican, he's also known for being able to work with the opposition. As a member of the Ways & Means Committee, the six-term congressman has ties with key Democrats, such as New York's Representative Charles B. Rangel. Those relationships will come into play immediately as the new trade rep sets out to sell his fellow members of Congress -- particularly recalcitrant Democrats -- on a completed free trade deal with the five nations of Central America and the Dominican Republic. Portman will no doubt be spending much of the next few months in the air, but he'll have to do some of his toughest work down on the ground in Washington.

By Paul Magnusson in Washington

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