WASHINGTON — Facing tough political battles over a controversial trade pact with Central America and rising imports from China, President Bush on Thursday enlisted a Capitol Hill insider and loyal supporter to be his new trade chief.
Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) would replace Robert Zoellick, who is the new deputy secretary of state. The Senate is expected to confirm Portman's nomination as U.S. trade representative.
Portman, 49, who has been in the House since 1993, is one of Bush's best friends in Congress and was active in pulling in votes and money for the president's reelection campaign in Ohio, a state hit hard by manufacturing job losses. A member of the House leadership and an influential voice in matters involving Social Security, trade, tax policy and pensions, he is viewed as a respected, serious conservative.
U.S. trade policy critics were unhappy with the nomination, saying that his record demonstrated a willingness to promote the interests of big business over the preservation of jobs, labor rights and the environment.
"It's the policies, not the personalities, that really count," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch and one of the administration's most vocal critics.
Trade advocates and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Foreign Trade Council, applauded the appointment, calling Portman a seasoned political strategist with an understanding of the often arcane and complex world of global trade. They said his friendship with Bush should make it easier to get the attention of a White House distracted by the war and Social Security and tax reform.
"Nobody gives up a congressional seat for USTR unless he or she has a commitment from the president that this is going to be a priority issue," said Gary Hufbauer, an Institute for International Economics trade expert.
The trade agenda under Bush has taken a back seat to foreign and domestic policy matters, not just as a result of the demands of the Iraq war and the attention devoted to Social Security but because of turmoil in Congress. The administration's top priority -- passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement -- faces strong Democratic opposition that is tied to labor and environmental concerns.
"They're 30 to 40 votes short [in the House] of what they need to pass CAFTA," said Greg Mastel, a trade consultant and former congressional staffer. "That's not impossible but that's an uphill battle."
Trade issues are particularly critical for California, whose high-tech firms, cotton growers and apparel makers are increasingly dependent on markets and suppliers around the world.
With his appointee by his side Thursday, Bush described Portman as a seasoned politician who understood that "America's farmers and workers can compete with anybody, anytime, anywhere in the world, so long as the rules are fair."
In rare public comments about his trade agenda, Bush called for pursuing additional bilateral trade agreements, negotiating a hemispheric-wide free-trade zone and completing a new round of trade talks through the World Trade Organization.
Portman acknowledged the relative obscurity in which the U.S. trade representative often works, despite the job's Cabinet-level rank. He told the president that his daughter, Sally, a fourth-grade student, "had to admit that she had never heard of the U.S. trade representative" though she thought it "sounds like a really neat job."
A former trade lawyer who has traveled widely and is fluent in Spanish and French, Portman said he considered his new post a "very important responsibility during historic times."
He has shown strong support for free-trade policies, voting in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the creation of the World Trade Organization and expansion of trade relations with China.
He did, however, support a ban on steel imports in 1998, a key issue in Ohio where steel producers have been hammered for years by lower-priced imports, according to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. U.S. textile manufacturers are pressing for restraints on Chinese textile and apparel imports.
In Europe, Portman's nomination was viewed with relief among those who feared the White House would either let the trade spot go unfulfilled or appoint someone who would use the job to promote a political ideology.
Bush has triggered concern worldwide among internationalists with his recent decisions to name two outspoken supporters to key slots: John A. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations and Paul Wolfowitz as the head of the World Bank.
"Unlike his recent selections, this one will be regarded as uncontroversial and hopeful in the sense that this is a guy who believes in trade and hopefully wants to work with Europeans," said John Audley, a senior fellow based in Brussels with the German Marshall Fund, a think tank focused on U.S.-European ties.
Iritani reported from Los Angeles and Gerstenzang from Washington.