Senators voted Thursday to confirm Robert Lighthizer as the next U.S. trade representative, but the 82-14 tally exposed some discontent within President Trump’s own party about the direction the administration is going on trade.
Most Republicans and Democrats backed Mr. Lighthizer, saying they hope he brings a serious approach to the White House’s push for fair trade terms for the U.S.
“Bob knows our steel industry, knows the importance of our manufacturing sector and knows our failed trade policy has left Ohio workers behind,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat and a longtime labor union champion. “I’ve vowed to work with President Trump’s administration to chart a new trade agenda and I’ve sent the president my ideas.”
But several Republicans dissented, voting against Mr. Lighthizer in what they said was a signal to Mr. Trump to turn away from the renegotiations of trade deals he promised during the campaign.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Ben Sasse slammed Mr. Trump’s “incoherent and inconsistent trade posture” and Mr. Lighthizer’s “vocal advocacy for protectionist shifts” in U.S. trade policies.
They were joined in voting “No” by Sen. Cory Gardner, Colorado Republican, who said American agriculture interests could be harmed by the administration’s trade policies.
Mr. Trump had threatened to end U.S. participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement, but after recent conversations with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto he said he’d try to renegotiate it first.
“I’m for open trade, free trade, but I also want smart trade and fair trade,” the president said in an interview with The Economist published Thursday.
Mr. Trump also said he doesn’t think he’s permanently changed the Republican Party’s position on trade.
“No. Because there’ll always be someone that comes along with another idea, but it’s not a better idea. We have the better idea,” he said.
Mr. Trump has already scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was the massive legacy-building trade deal President Obama negotiated but was unable to push through Congress.
And the president said recently he may renegotiate a bilateral trade deal with South Korea.
Historically, GOP lawmakers in Washington have been more enthusiastic about free trade deals, providing the bulk of votes for them in Congress. But Mr. Trump is breaking that narrative.
“Many Americans have lost confidence in trade agreements, and I believe that’s partly because the benefits of trade agreements have been oversold, while the enforcement of unfair trading practices [has] been insufficient,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who supported the new trade representative.
Mr. Trump has also built common ground with liberal critics of NAFTA, such as Mr. Brown and Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin — though Sen. Bernard Sanders, one of the most vocal critics of such international trade deals, did vote no.
Mrs. Baldwin cited agriculture as a chief concern in explaining her yes vote, saying the sector in her state has hurt by restrictive trade barriers set by Canada. There’s been an ongoing dispute involving a Canadian tariff on U.S. dairy products, which affects states like Wisconsin.
“Unfair trade deals, like NAFTA, have cost our Wisconsin economy manufacturing jobs,” she said. “It is my hope that President Trump will keep his promise to ensure that our nation’s trade policies will level the playing field for American workers.”
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