Democrats’ insistence on tying trade agreements to renewal of benefits for displaced workers could delay Senate confirmation of President Obama’s nominee for Commerce secretary, businessman John E. Bryson.
Mr. Obama announced Mr. Bryson’s nomination at the White House on Tuesday, saying the retired utility executive has “the expertise that will help us create new jobs and make America more competitive in the global economy.”
Mr. Bryson, 67, would replace Gary Locke, who is the president’s choice to become the new U.S. ambassador to China. Mr. Locke was nominated for the job after Ambassador John Huntsman Jr. quit the post to explore a run for president.
But 44 Senate Republicans have said they will block any Commerce nominee unless the administration renews free-trade agreements with Panama and Colombia. The administration and congressional Democrats said last month that those pacts must be tied to expanded benefits for workers displaced by rising imports.
Democrats and their union allies want the worker benefits, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, to receive the same fast-track approval as the trade agreements, which protect them from being filibustered. Republicans oppose that move.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said it would be counterproductive for Republican senators to stall Mr. Bryson’s confirmation over the free-trade dispute.
“We think it would be folly to hold up a nomination so important as the commerce secretary for any reason,” Mr. Carney said.
The administration is hopeful that Mr. Bryson will help repair relations with business leaders, who have been highly critical of the president’s agenda. In a speech before last fall’s mid-term elections, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue criticized the administration for “a tsunami of new regulations, mandates and taxes.”
“Instead of a government of the people, we are moving toward a government of the regulators,” Mr. Donohue said at the time.
In a statement Tuesday, Mr. Donohue said he hopes Mr. Bryson “will be a strong voice for American business.”
Before managing the California-based utility Edison International, Mr. Bryson co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council. The group has been active filing lawsuits over the years to press for enforcement of clean-air and clean-water regulations.
“John will be able to draw on decades of business experience across a range of industries — from his role on the boards of major companies like Disney and Boeing, to his leadership in the clean energy industry,” Mr. Obama said.