Lighthizer Approval as Trade Rep Paves Way for Nafta Talks

  • Senate votes for USTR head by comfortable margin of 82-14
  • Revamping trade deals is a key priority of the administration

Wilbur Ross Says Nafta Is an 'Obsolete Agreement' at Best

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.

In a 82-14 vote, the Senate approved Robert Lighthizer as U.S. Trade Representative on Thursday. Trump tapped Lighthizer for the position in January, but the lawyer’s confirmation was delayed by questions from lawmakers over work he did decades ago on behalf of foreign governments, for which he had to get a legal waiver.

One of Lighthizer’s first orders of business will be to consult Congress on the administration’s plans to renegotiate Nafta, which Trump called a “disaster” during the election campaign. His confirmation clears a hurdle before the U.S. can start 90 days of consultations preceding Nafta talks. Trump has threatened to withdraw from the agreement with Mexico and Canada if he doesn’t thinks discussions are going his way.

Lighthizer overcame a last-minute push by two Republican senators, John McCain and Ben Sasse, to block his confirmation. The pair voted against his appointment, along with fellow Republican Cory Gardner, after saying they had concerns about the administration’s protectionist rhetoric and its plans to renegotiate Nafta.

China Problem

Lighthizer, 69, worked for decades as a trade lawyer, representing clients including U.S. Steel Corp. He served as a deputy USTR under Ronald Reagan, earning a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator, and he also has political experience from his time as a senior aide to former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole.

During his confirmation hearing, Lighthizer told lawmakers that China presents one of America’s leading trade problems, adding that the World Trade Organization isn’t capable of handling cases relating to China’s industrial policy.

Trump has made tackling trade deficits and bringing back U.S. jobs from overseas a key focus of his economic agenda. As one of his first acts in the presidency, Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, which Congress hadn’t yet approved, and he’s since vowed to terminate or fix a five-year-old trade agreement with South Korea.

His administration has also promised to more strictly enforce existing trade rules, and Lighthizer during his confirmation hearing vowed to bring “as many actions as are justified” to the WTO and bilateral dispute panels.

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