WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday nominated a close personal friend and one of his most loyal supporters, Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, a Republican from Cincinnati, to be his new trade representative.
At a time when the nation's trade deficit has grown to record levels (nearly $618 billion last year), Mr. Bush said he was selecting Mr. Portman because "as an Ohioan, Rob knows firsthand that millions of American jobs depend on exports, including one in every five factory jobs."
Ohio narrowly voted for Mr. Bush in November despite the loss of more than 200,000 jobs during his first term and a strong aversion in some parts of the state to his free-trade agenda.
Mr. Portman's new job, if he is confirmed by the Senate as is expected, will be to push for new free trade agreements and to sell American goods and services abroad. His most formidable challenge will be the growing trade deficit with China, whose cheap goods are being bought by price-conscious Americans in ever greater numbers.
Mr. Portman, 49, a lawyer, has been elected to the House six times, getting 74 percent of the vote in his last election. He is part of Mr. Bush's "brain trust" and was included in many of the President's major campaign strategy sessions last year. He was communications director of the Ohio Bush campaign and helped ready Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for debates.
Mr. Portman was with Mr. Bush in a brief ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House yesterday for the announcement. Mr. Portman would succeed Robert Zoellick, who has become the second-in-command at the State Department, under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Mr. Bush praised Mr. Zoellick's performance, saying Mr. Zoellick helped him get Trade Promotion Authority, which lets him negotiate free-trade pacts, and helped bring China and Taiwan into the World Trade Organization.
Mr. Bush said one of Mr. Portman's first priorities will be to work to pass the long-stalled Central American Free Trade Agreement, to remove barriers to trade between Central American nations and the United States. Organized labor opposes the deal, as it opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, arguing it will cost American workers jobs because of looser labor and environmental standards in Central American countries. Also, the powerful U.S. sugar industry opposes cheaper sugar coming into this country. Mr. Bush also wants Mr. Portman to negotiate a free-trade agreement with more Middle East countries.
Mr. Portman served in the White House under former President George H.W. Bush and is on the House Ways and Means Committee. The specialist in tax matters was in line to be chairman of the House Budget Committee in the next Congress. He has been the White House's key liaison with House leaders.
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