U.S. President Donald Trump says he’s ready to start a major renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, now that his trade czar has achieved his long-awaited confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
The upper chamber voted with a large bipartisan majority Thursday to approve Robert Lighthizer, which gives the administration its U.S. trade representative and allows it to kick-start its NAFTA process.
The vote was 82-14 to confirm.
Lighthizer was 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’s broken with most Republicans in his criticism of free trade agreements and who’s spread the work on trade policy beyond the trade representative.
Lighthizer’s NAFTA skepticism ‘alarming’
Two Republican senators said late Wednesday they would oppose Lighthizer. Senators 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.
McCain and Sasse said Lighthizer has made his skepticism of NAFTA well-known, “which we find to be alarming.”
NOTABLE: Zero GOP Senators joined McCain & Sasse in NAYS vs Lighthizer. Many eyes were on Flake/Cornyn, known free traders, border Senators pic.twitter.com/Y4ByPq9bLb
Some of Lighthizer’s strongest support has come from Democratic lawmakers.
Senator 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 over-hyped announcements that are backed by little substance,” Wyden said.
Chrystia Freeland expected to meet Lighthizer
The president told an interview with The Economist that he intends to proceed quickly after Lighthizer’s confirmation: Trump intends to file a 90-day notice with Congress, work with it on negotiating priorities, and start talks with Canada and Mexico later this year.
“The clock starts ticking [with Lighthizer’s confirmation],” Trump told the magazine, before the vote. The administration has begun signalling that it wants significant changes in a range of areas, including…