WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate on Thursday confirmed Robert Lighthizer in an 82-14 vote as the U.S. trade representative, paving the way for the Trump administration to begin moving more aggressively on its America First trade agenda.
Lighthizer's appointment has been closely watched by automakers because he will have the primary role dealing with Congress and foreign nations in implementing what could be far-reaching changes over import-export rules.
The confirmation process dragged out for four months over procedural and partisan issues.
The Finance Committee on April 25 unanimously approved Lighthizer's nomination for full Senate consideration.
Lighthizer, 69 -- a veteran trade attorney who was deputy U.S. trade representative during the Reagan administration and, before that, chief of staff on the Finance Committee -- required a waiver before he could be confirmed.
Committee investigators discovered Lighthizer represented the Brazilian government 30 years ago in a trade dispute with U.S. ethanol producers, potentially disqualifying him from becoming the top U.S. trade official. Under a law passed in the 1990s, no one who has represented a foreign government in a trade dispute or negotiations against the U.S. can head the trade representative's office.
Republicans questioned whether a waiver is legally necessary because the U.S. government was not involved in the private sector case over ethanol and his work on the matter predated the statute. Nonetheless, Democrats held firm on the waiver as leverage to get Republican agreement on extending health care benefits for 23,000 retired coal miners and their dependents that were due to expire at the end of April.
In private practice as a partner at Skadden Arps, Lighthizer represented companies, mainly in the steel industry, that sought U.S. government relief from alleged unfair trade practices by foreign competitors.