The delay-filled confirmation process for President Donald Trump’s choice for chief trade negotiator has now entered a danger zone, as two prominent Republicans announced Wednesday night they will vote against Robert Lighthizer for U.S. trade representative.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska said they worry the veteran trade attorney does not fully understand the benefits of NAFTA and would not adequately champion agricultural interests in trade negotiations.
But progressive Democrats like Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin support his nomination, making it likely he will get the 51 votes needed to win confirmation in the Senate, where the GOP controls 52 seats. Lighthizer, who had earned praise from both sides of the aisle until now, was announced as Trump’s pick on Jan. 3, and is the last of Trump’s Cabinet-level nominees who still need Senate approval.
It is an open question, however, whether any rank-and-file Republicans would join McCain and Sasse in breaking ranks. Lighthizer has past experience at the U.S. trade representative’s office under former President Ronald Reagan — always a good name to have on one’s résumé in GOP circles — and Republican senators will be sensitive to the reality that much of Trump’s trade agenda depends on having a top trade negotiator in place to hammer out the better deals he has promised voters.
McCain and Sasse, in turning against their party, faulted the administration’s “incoherent and inconsistent trade message” and the fact that Lighthizer needed a waiver to serve as USTR because of past work representing foreign governments.
"You also have made your skepticism of NAFTA well-known, which we find to be alarming," the senators wrote in a lengthy letter to Lighthizer this evening, arguing that the nominee does not appreciate that millions of jobs were created by the Clinton-era deal with Mexico and Canada, which Trump has threatened to withdraw from unless it is reworked. "America deserves a USTR who will renegotiate NAFTA in order to build on its successes, not as a pretext for unraveling it."
McCain, the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2008, had already made his opposition to Lighthizer’s nomination known, telling reporters on Tuesday that he had blocked unanimous consent because of “unanswered questions” he had surrounding Lighthizer’s support for free trade.
But Sasse, an outspoken, pro-trade Republican whose home state of Nebraska is heavily reliant on agricultural exports, noted in the letter that his one-on-one meeting with Lighthizer did nothing to convince him that Lighthizer understands the importance of protecting U.S. agriculture, which is mired in an economic downturn and looking to Trump to use trade to turn things around.
"America needs a USTR who will effectively defend agriculture during trade negotiations and fight to expand agricultural export markets, not let America’s farmers and ranchers become collateral damage in a trade war," the letter says.
The Senate late Thursday morning is slated to vote on whether to end debate on Lighthizer’s nomination. That simple-majority vote will kick off a maximum period of 30 hours of debate, meaning the earliest Lighthizer could come to the Senate floor for a full confirmation vote would be sometime on Monday. That would be 132 days after he first became Trump’s choice.