US Senate gives bipartisan backing to new trade rep

Only 11 Democrats voted against Mr Robert Lighthizer.
Only 11 Democrats voted against Mr Robert Lighthizer.

'Protectionist advocate' Robert Lighthizer gets 37 Democrat votes, 45 Republican ones

WASHINGTON • When it comes to trade, the Trump effect is on full display in the United States Senate.

Fully 37 Democrats voted on Thursday to confirm the new US trade representative, abandoning their partisan posture and instead embracing President Donald Trump's pledge to renegotiate existing trade deals and to scuttle those in the works.

Those Democrats were joined by 45 Republicans who voted for Mr Robert Lighthizer in a rare bipartisan moment a day after Democrats demanded an independent criminal investigation of Mr Trump's 2016 campaign after he fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey.

The trade issue has been turned on its head, to a position where there is now a bipartisan majority in Congress opposing the global economic strategy that has driven the country's trade policy for the past 35 years.

"In our party, I think there's an intensity about this issue that maybe wasn't there a few years ago," said Senator Robert Casey, a Democrat.

The 2016 campaign brought the trade issue to the fore unlike any presidential race in recent memory, he said, and Mr Trump's sweep of the industrial Midwest sent a shock through the Democratic Party that altered its view on how global deals should be considered.

Just two years ago, a solid bipartisan majority still supported free trade. In May 2015, 62 senators - 48 Republicans and 14 Democrats - approved fast-track authority so that then President Barack Obama could finalise the largest global trade pact ever attempted, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Several weeks later, nearly 30 Democrats joined more than 190 Republicans to approve the fast-track deal in the House.

By the end of 2015, however, Mr Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders had taken off in the respective Republican and Democratic presidential primaries by slamming TPP and the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was a double hit against Mrs Hillary Clinton, who had begun TPP negotiations as secretary of state and who was first lady when Mr Bill Clinton clinched the 1993 trade deal with Canada and Mexico (Nafta).

By the spring of last year, Republican incumbents running for re-election, who had supported the 2015 fast-track vote on trade, were renouncing TPP as a bad deal.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan said there were no longer enough votes to pass the trade deal.

And in one of his first formal acts after taking office, Mr Trump withdrew the US from the TPP.

There are certainly some classic free traders in the Senate, particularly among Republicans, but they have largely gone silent as Mr Trump tries to revamp decades of past global policy.

His biggest critics were two arch supporters of Nafta and other trade deals, Republican senators John McCain and Ben Sasse. In a Wednesday letter, the duo criticised Mr Lighthizer's "vocal advocacy for protectionist shifts in our trade policies", following a confirmation hearing in which the nominee embraced "an America-first trade policy".

Only 11 Democrats voted against Mr Lighthizer, almost all of whom are considered future presidential candidates or among the most liberal. The others offered some of the strongest support for him.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 13, 2017, with the headline 'US Senate gives bipartisan backing to new trade rep'. Print Edition | Subscribe