POLITICS
05/31/2011 02:58 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2011

Senate GOP To Obama: No Commerce Nominee Without Trade Deals

WASHINGTON –- President Barack Obama is heading for a partisan showdown over trade policy with his new Commerce Secretary nominee.

Obama announced Tuesday that he is tapping John Bryson as Commerce Secretary to replace Gary Locke, who is transitioning to his new post as U.S. Ambassador to China. During brief remarks at the White House, Obama hailed Bryson, the former chairman and CEO of California power company Edison International, as “a fierce proponent of alternative energy” and touted him as someone who understands the need to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil “virtually better than anybody.”

But Bryson is about to get hit by crossfire coming from Senate Republicans, who have vowed to block any trade-related nominee to force action on stalled free trade deals.

More than 40 Senate Republicans sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in March warning him that until Obama submits the Colombia and Panama trade agreements to Congress and commits to signing them into law, “We will use all the tools at our disposal to force action—including withholding support for any nominee for Commerce Secretary and any trade-related nominees.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday rejected the idea that action on trade deals can be used as a bargaining chip for confirming Bryson.

"We think that it would be folly to hold up a nomination so important as the Commerce Secretary for any reason," Carney said during his daily briefing. "We look forward to Senate confirmation."

The White House spokesman also brushed off concerns of a filibuster threat on the issue.

Obama angered Republicans last month when announcing he would not submit pending trade deals for Panama, Colombia and South Korea to Congress—one of few areas with bipartisan support on Capitol Hill—until GOP leaders sign off on a robust assistance package for U.S. workers hurt by their jobs being sent overseas. The president’s stance was an about-face from his past comments on trade policy, which have been largely supportive of proceeding on the agreements as standalone items. All three of the pacts are left over from the Bush administration.

“It was a total, surprise change,” said one senior GOP aide. “Union-led, no doubt.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last month reiterated the GOP plan to block trade-related nominees until Obama agrees to send over the pending trade pacts.

"It is my hope that the president will reconsider this decision to delay and will not allow anything to get in the way of congressional consideration of these trade agreements and the jobs they’ll create," he said in a statement.