Image: President Bush announces Rob Portman as his choice for U.S. Trade Representative
Larry Downing  /  Reuters
President Bush announces his choice of U.S. Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) as U.S. Trade Representative on Thursday. Portman has been a crucial link between the White House and Congress on trade and tax issues.
updated 3/17/2005 2:00:31 PM ET 2005-03-17T19:00:31

President George Bush, facing a tough battle in Congress over a controversial trade deal with Central America, turned to a Capitol Hill veteran on Thursday to be his next U.S. trade representative.

“For more than a decade, Rob Portman has been a superb representative of the Second District of Ohio,” Bush said at a White House event to announce the nomination. “As a member of the House leadership, Rob has shown he can bring together people of differing views to get things done.”

Portman — whose first big challenge will be winning approval of a contentious free trade agreement with five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic — is a close ally of House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican who promoted him to a key leadership post.

Anger over the trade gap
The Republican congressman, who hails from a big manufacturing state, will also have to cope with mounting congressional anger over the U.S. trade gap with China, which swelled to a record $162 billion in 2004.

He serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade, and played an advisory role in Bush’s re-election campaign last year, particularly in Ohio, where the president eked out a narrow but crucial victory.

Portman pledged to continue Bush’s “bold international trade agenda” if confirmed by the Senate.

“Through expanded trade, the roots of democracy and freedom are deepened. And here at home, trade policy opens markets to create jobs, a higher standard of living and greater economic growth,” he said.

He joked that while his daughter had never heard of the USTR, she thought it sounded like a “neat job.”

Portman would fill a vacancy left after Robert Zoellick moved to the State Department last month to become deputy secretary of state. In the interim, Peter Allgeier has filled in as Bush’s top trade official.

The Bush administration has pursued many trade pacts after winning trade promotion authority from Congress in 2002.

Challenging agenda
Portman will take on an agenda that includes world trade talks, a free trade pact covering the Americas and bilateral deals with countries in the Andean region, Thailand, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

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“We welcome this nomination and if Mr. Portman is confirmed we will be looking for good cooperation with him,” European Commission spokeswoman Claude Veron-Reville said. “A huge challenge lies ahead of us in view of the completion of the (current round of world trade talks) so we have to start cooperating with the new USTR as soon as he is confirmed.”

The former trade lawyer’s ties to the Bush family go back at least to the late 1980s, when he worked as an attorney in the White House and later as director of legislative affairs during the administration of Bush’s father.

Wanted: Political savvy
“I think what he brings to the post is political savvy,” said John Murphy, vice president for international trade at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said this was essential to help Bush win approval of CAFTA — the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement — and other pacts.

“If you look historically, those trade representatives who have been most successful have come from political rather than trade backgrounds,” said John Weekes, a former Canadian trade ambassador now working at a law firm in Geneva.

A formidable coalition of sugar farmers, textile companies and labor and activist groups oppose CAFTA, which they say will cause U.S. job losses and worsen the trade deficit — which hit a record $618 billion last year.

Alan Tonelson, research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, which represents small- and medium-sized companies, said the choice of Portman was a “slap in the face to the U.S. manufacturing base” because of his consistent record of voting for trade agreements.

But the largest U.S. industrial trade association, the National Association of Manufacturers, hailed him as a “spectacular choice” and urged swift passage in the Senate.

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