WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday confirmed President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. trade representative on a bipartisan vote despite complaints from some Republicans that the administration has an “ongoing, incoherent and inconsistent trade message.”
The Senate voted 82-14 to confirm Robert Lighthizer, who served as deputy U.S. trade representative under President Ronald Reagan and has worked on trade issues as a lawyer representing various manufacturers and high-tech companies.
Lighthizer 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 office of the United States Trade Representative.
Two Republican senators said late Wednesday they would oppose Lighthizer. 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.
“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.
The senators said they doubted that Lighthizer would champion agriculture and negotiate trade deals to the benefit of American consumers and the economy.
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.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he told Lighthizer there are definitely opportunities to update and improve NAFTA.
“But it is important that the administration follow the spirit of the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm,” Hatch said in endorsing Lighthizer before the vote.
Some of Lighthizer’s strongest support came from Democratic lawmakers.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said Lighthizer not only understands how the global trading system works, but also how it sometimes breaks down. Still, Wyden complained that he wanted to get more clarity about the administration’s trade agenda, saying it’s clear that different factions in the administration have opposing agendas on trade issues.
“So far, this administration’s trade strategy amounts to a muddle of 140-character tweets, mixed messages and overhyped announcements that are backed by little substance,” Wyden said.
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.
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.