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Bush Shifts Top Trade Negotiator to Budget Office

April 19, 2006|Joel Havemann | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush shuffled part of the White House economic team Tuesday, naming his chief trade negotiator to be his budget director and appointing a new person to lead the nation's trade negotiations.

If confirmed by the Senate as expected, Rob Portman, a former Republican member of Congress from Cincinnati, will serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget. The budget job became vacant this week when Joshua B. Bolten was promoted to White House chief of staff.

Portman's job as U.S. trade representative will be filled by his deputy, Susan C. Schwab.

Trade analysts said Portman's departure from the trade office, just as international negotiations aimed at liberalizing trade rules were nearing their climax, suggested that the administration had given up on the talks.

In another White House staff change, Jim Towey, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said he would leave by June 2 to become president of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.

Bush announced his nominations of Portman and Schwab during a brief ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.

Many Republican lawmakers and strategists are worried that the president's slide in public opinion polls will hurt the party in the November elections, and some have counseled Bush to make significant staff changes to reinvigorate the White House. Bush signaled that more changes would come now that Bolten had begun his new job as chief of staff.

"You know, this is a matter of high speculation here in Washington," Bush said. "It's the game of musical chairs, I guess you'd say, that people love to follow."

Bolten, he said, "will bring different recommendations to me as to who should be here and who should not be here.... With a new man will come some changes."

Portman, 50, portrayed himself as a deficit hawk who at the same time favored Bush's tax cuts, which he had supported as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee during Bush's first term.

"Among the main reasons I ran for Congress back in 1993 was to cut the federal deficit.... The common-sense, fiscally conservative values of southwest Ohio guided me then, and they guide me now," Portman said at the White House ceremony.

He promised to work with lawmakers of both parties to pare government spending that did not serve "our national priorities." In particular, he said he would seek to wean members of Congress from their practice of "earmarking" millions of federal dollars to pay for pet projects in their districts.

Portman got his start in politics by campaigning for his predecessor in Congress, Bill Gradison, before he was 21. He joined the White House staff of President George H.W. Bush in 1989, working first in the counsel's office and then in legislative affairs. He has a reputation for working well with Democrats.

Republicans in Congress were uniform in praising Bush's choice of Portman to head the budget office. In a typical comment, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois said, "Republicans in Congress look forward to continuing to work closely with him to strengthen the growing economy, keep a tight rein on federal spending, and reform entitlement programs."

Even some Democrats praised Portman. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, who successfully cosponsored a pension bill with Portman in 2000, called him an excellent choice who "understands the importance of bipartisanship."

A sour note came from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who noted that Portman had presided over record U.S. trade deficits and would inherit record budget deficits.

Bush credited Portman, his trade representative for the last 11 months, with breathing new life into the so-called Doha round of international trade negotiations. He indicated that Schwab's elevation to chief trade negotiator would maintain continuity at the trade representative's office.

Outside analysts, however, argued that the switch spelled doom for the troubled trade talks, which are hung up over wealthy countries' insistence that they maintain their agricultural subsidies.

Steven C. Clemons, executive vice president of the New America Foundation, said Portman's move showed that the administration was focusing on domestic budget issues and not trade.

"It signals the [Doha] round is dead," Clemons said. "No one is investing any political capital in it.... It's just a sign that trade is not going to be a front-burner item."

Peter Mandelson, chief trade negotiator for the European Union, lamented Portman's departure at a critical juncture. "We will of course manage without him," Mandelson said. "But at this stage in the round, it would have been easier to manage with him."

By contrast, Israel Hernandez, assistant Commerce secretary for trade promotion, said the substitution of Schwab for Portman marked a "natural continuation" that "won't in any way impede our progress on trade negotiations."

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