- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006

President Bush’s nominee for U.S. trade representative yesterday said her biggest challenge would be shoring up domestic support for more open markets and lower tariffs.

“The most pressing problem we face in trade today has been the erosion of America’s traditional bipartisan support for open trade and the pro-trade agenda that has so benefited the United States,” Susan Schwab told the Senate Finance Committee at her confirmation hearing.

Ms. Schwab, now deputy U.S. trade representative, is likely to easily win Senate confirmation as soon as next week. She also is likely to face hostile lawmakers when defending Bush administration trade policy on Capitol Hill.

“If this is a success, I’d hate to see a failure. To me, we’re on a course that is utterly unsustainable,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, while pointing to a chart showing growth of the U.S. trade deficit since 1992.

The trade deficit hit a record $725.8 billion last year. In 1992, the year before Congress approved the North American Free Trade Agreement, it was $84.5 billion.

Ms. Schwab said the deficit was caused mostly by broad economic factors, not trade policy.

“Our trade policy has been successful, and I think one has to be careful how we look at these numbers,” she said, noting strong economic growth and low unemployment rates.

Ms. Schwab said she would try to restore broad support to free-trade policies and promised to press ahead with the administration’s trade agenda, including efforts to revive stalled World Trade Organization (WTO) talks and a push to win congressional approval of pacts with Peru, Colombia and Oman.

The last major free-trade deal, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, won House approval in July by two votes after weeks of rancorous, partisan debate.

Ms. Schwab will face challenges abroad, as well.

WTO negotiations to liberalize global trade have stalled, while talks to create free-trade agreements with 11 additional countries, including Thailand and South Africa, have fallen behind schedule and face numerous obstacles.

Ms. Schwab said the administration had not given up on the WTO talks and hopes for “an ambitious and robust outcome.”

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