Commerce Secretary Nominee Caught In Crossfire Of Trade Fight

06/21/2011 08:07 pm ET | Updated Aug 21, 2011

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama’s nominee for Commerce Secretary came to Capitol Hill Tuesday for his first Senate nominations hearing—and before he even introduced himself Republicans were warning that his confirmation will likely be blocked through no fault of his own.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told the panel that despite aspects of nominee John Bryson’s record being “very impressive,” Thune and other Republicans are prepared to delay Bryson's confirmation until the administration moves forward on stalled free trade agreements.

Thune’s threat traces back to mid-March, when 44 GOP Senators sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) vowing to withhold support for any trade-related nominee—including the Commerce Secretary—until Obama submits pending trade deals for Colombia and Panama to Congress.

“I believe I speak for a good number of those in our Caucus when I say that it’s going to be difficult for Republicans to support Mr. Bryson’s nomination until the administration submits those free trade agreements,” Thune told Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) during Tuesday's hearing.

Thune lamented that it has been more than three months since the Reid letter and the administration “has still not committed to a specific timetable for implementing those agreements.”

Obama supports passing all of the trade deals leftover from the Bush administration—that is, for Colombia, Panama and South Korea— but he announced last month that he will only submit them to Congress after Republicans renew a federal program that provides job training to U.S. workers who lose their jobs because of foreign trade. Republicans have been loathe to tie that program to passage of the trade deals, arguing that the weakened economy demands a boost from trade agreements now more than ever.

A White House spokesperson reiterated Tuesday the trade deals will come over as soon as Republicans pass the aid package, and warned against holding up a nominee as crucial as the Commerce Secretary.

“The President is committed to passing all three trade agreements as well as extending Trade Adjustment Assistance for unemployed workers,” the spokesperson told The Huffington Post. “We continue to work steadily with our partners in the House and Senate and see no reason that we cannot reach an agreement on TAA in the near future.”

The spokesperson added, “In the meantime, it would be a major mistake to hold up a nomination as important as the Commerce Secretary for any reason, and we look forward to his confirmation in the Senate.”

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