President Bush yesterday named Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a free-trade advocate who is well-regarded by lawmakers in both parties, as his choice for U.S. trade representative.
The choice of Portman reflects the challenges the administration faces in Congress on the trade issue this year. The White House is encountering especially stiff resistance in the House from most Democrats, and a number of Republicans as well, in securing approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a pact linking the economies of the United States, the Dominican Republic and five Central American nations. Having a seasoned veteran of Capitol Hill as trade representative -- Portman has served in the House since 1993 -- could improve the accord's chances.
"Rob has shown he can bring together people of differing views to get things done," Bush said in announcing the appointment.
If confirmed by the Senate, Portman would replace Robert B. Zoellick, now deputy secretary of state. Although admired for his mastery of trade policy and strategy, Zoellick sometimes raised lawmakers' hackles and was disparaged by Democrats as a divisive figure. An outpouring of praise from Democrats for Portman suggested that the Ohio Republican will come to the job with a deep reservoir of goodwill in the opposition ranks.
Portman is "an outstanding legislator who knows how to reach out to all sides to get an agreement," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking minority member of the trade subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, in a prepared statement. "I applaud his selection as the new USTR and look forward to working with him."
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), ranking minority member on the Senate Finance Committee, described Portman as "well-liked and well-respected for his intelligence, experience and willingness to work with both sides of the aisle to get things done." Business groups also hailed the announcement.
Portman, 49, brings other strengths to the post, notably a long-standing relationship with Bush and his family. Fresh out of Dartmouth College, he was a junior advance man in the 1980 presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush and worked on the White House staff from 1989 to 1991, during the elder Bush's administration. He also worked on the current president's races in 2000 and 2004, campaigning hard for Bush in Ohio.
His background on trade includes membership on the House trade subcommittee, and he worked as a trade lawyer in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.
Portman benefited from the premium the president puts on trust and familiarity, and the credential from the father's administration gave him instant entree to the tightly knit group Bush relied on when he was Texas governor and running for president. Portman had passed up several chances to run for leadership jobs in the House, but his status as a White House sounding board and emissary gave him considerable prestige and clout. He was named chairman of the Republican leadership, a non-elected post, and was one of the few non-leaders with a hideaway office in the Capitol.
Portman, usually chatty but already indoctrinated with White House message discipline, told reporters at the Capitol yesterday that he could not comment on his new job but would talk to them today.