- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

President Bush yesterday nominated Rep. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, to become the country’s top trade envoy as the White House works to build congressional support for its trade agenda.

Mr. Portman, if approved by the Senate as the next U.S. trade representative, would face skeptical former colleagues when trying to win congressional passage of a commercial pact with Central America, and a divided international community as he tries to update World Trade Organization rules.

“[Mr. Portman] understands that trade creates jobs, raises living standards and lowers prices for families here at home. Rob also understands that as the world trades more freely, it becomes more free and prosperity abounds,” Mr. Bush said in a ceremony in the White House’s Roosevelt Room.

The Bush administration has linked trade, economic freedom and political freedom in a policy that includes giving foreign countries easier access to the U.S. market in return for economic reforms and more access to U.S. exports.

Robert B. Zoellick, who left the U.S. trade representative’s job to become deputy secretary of state last month, struck or helped enact free-trade deals with 12 nations and opened talks with a dozen more.

Mr. Portman, 49, said he would build on that record.

“For the past four years, Mr. President, you have been passionate about your vision for free and fair trade,” Mr. Portman said. “I look forward to being able to try to build on that progress.”

Mr. Bush said priorities include pursuit of bilateral free-trade deals, continuing work on a Free Trade Area of the Americas among 34 nations, and completing a round of WTO talks. Mr. Bush also highlighted enforcement of trade laws.

Mr. Portman’s most difficult test this year will be winning congressional approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a pact with six developing nations. It has become a referendum on Bush trade policy and faces opposition from organized labor, environmental groups, many Democrats and a handful of Republicans.

Opponents equate CAFTA with a vast trade gap and foreign competition that has destroyed some U.S. jobs. Mr. Portman’s home state has lost 198,200 jobs, mostly in manufacturing, since January 2001.

“Representative Portman has been a big part of the problem facing U.S. manufacturers since outsourcing deals like NAFTA became the model for U.S. trade policy,” said Alan Tonelson, research fellow at the U.S. Business & Industry Council. “His appointment is a slap in the face to the U.S. domestic manufacturing base.”

The White House has dismissed its critics as economic isolationists.

“Our country is home to about 5 percent of the world’s population, and that means 95 percent of our potential customers are abroad. To keep our economy growing and creating jobs, we need to continue opening foreign markets to American products,” Mr. Bush said.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said Mr. Portman would be an effective trade representative.

“He is an outstanding legislator who knows how to reach out to all sides to get an agreement. He is an aggressive negotiator focused on getting results,” said Maryland Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, top Democrat on the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee.

Pro-trade groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers also praised Mr. Portman.

His congressional district is considered safe for Republicans.

The seven-term congressman was known as a close ally of Mr. Bush, and his legislative accomplishments included being a leader on tax issues and being part of the committee that wrote the law establishing the Department of Homeland Security.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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