WASHINGTON—President Bush on Thursday tapped Ohio Rep. Rob Portman to be the U.S. trade representative, reaching into the Rust Belt to select a confidant and pitchman for free trade and U.S. exports.
Bush presented his surprise pick at a White House ceremony, calling the Cincinnati Republican "a tireless advocate for America's manufacturers."
Before he was elected to Congress in 1993, Portman was a lawyer specializing in international trade. An ardent supporter of most free-trade legislation, he said Thursday that he'd pursue the "bold international trade agenda" laid out by Bush.
Proponents of free-trade policies applauded the nomination.
"He is a home run as far as I am concerned," said Carla Hills, who served as U.S. trade representative from 1989 to 1993. Portman has negotiated deals, she said, and knows both the complexities of international trade and how to work with Congress.
Critics of U.S. trade policy were far less enthusiastic.
"His appointment is a real slap in the face from President Bush," said Alan Tonelson, a researcher at the U.S. Business and Industry Council. "It tells us U.S. trade policy is going to continue to be an outsourcing policy."
The council represents about 1,000 small- and medium-sized manufacturers. It contends that U.S. free-trade policies, which dropped protection of American industry in favor of global rules promoting worldwide trade, are partly to blame for more than 2.7 million lost manufacturing jobs since 2000. Many of those jobs went overseas.
The National Association of Manufacturers, the nation's largest industrial manufacturing group, welcomed Portman's nomination.
"He hails from a great manufacturing state and he knows what it takes to compete in the world," John Engler, the association's president, said in a statement. "Rob Portman will be a strong voice for leveling the international playing field and creating global opportunities for products made by workers in America."
If confirmed by the Senate, Portman will inherit a full plate. The Commerce Department announced Wednesday that the U.S. current account deficit—the broadest measure of trade in goods, services and investment—grew by more than 25 percent to a record $665.9 billion in 2004.
If troubling trade figures aren't enough, global trade talks to end farm subsidies are stymied. The United States and Europe are battling over subsidies to airplane makers. And China's weak currency continues to make U.S. products too expensive for sale in China's huge market.
At home, Portman must sell Bush's Central American Free Trade Agreement to a skeptical Congress, which must vote on its ratification. Southern textile states, which voted for Bush last year, staunchly oppose it.
Portman would replace Robert Zoellick, a longtime trade negotiator who's moved over to the State Department as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's top deputy.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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