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Tai confirmed as top U.S. trade negotiator

Hill veteran will be first woman of color to hold the Cabinet-level post

Katherine C. Tai, who has been nominated to be U.S. trade representative, speaks before the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 25 in Washington. (Reuters)

Katherine Tai, a longtime congressional staff lawyer, won Senate confirmation on Wednesday as the first woman of color to serve as the top U.S. trade negotiator.

The Senate approved her nomination 98-0, marking a rare bipartisan agreement in a deeply-divided Washington.

Among her first tasks will be advising the president on what to do about existing tariffs on most imported Chinese products, presiding over enforcement of a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, and seeking a negotiated end to a long-running commercial dispute with the European Union.

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Tai will be a key player in crafting the “worker-centered” trade policy that President Biden has promised and making sure his efforts to promote domestic manufacturing comply with U.S. trade commitments.

Tai, 46, will become a Cabinet officer after a career of behind-the-scenes work as a government and corporate lawyer. She must find her footing in a policy scrum crowded with longtime Biden associates such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who has called for recalibrating trade policy to deliver higher wages for workers rather than to open foreign markets for corporations.

“It’s going to be reshaping trade policy initiatives to centrally prioritize making sure the policy is beneficial to U.S. workers and the U.S. economy,” said Claire Reade, senior counsel at Arnold & Porter. “This is a fundamental shift.”

Tai, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, is the only Asian American woman to be appointed to a Cabinet-level position under Biden. Another top pick, Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, withdrew as a nominee to lead the White House budget office. The Biden administration has faced criticism from lawmakers and advocacy groups for not naming an Asian American or Pacific Islander to a major Cabinet post.

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Tai is well regarded by both the liberal and moderate wings of the Democratic Party as well as by business leaders. Along with her Capitol Hill tenure, she boasts several years at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), directing the enforcement of trade deals with China.

“She has the advantage of having negotiated directly with China,” said Reade, a former trade negotiator who hired Tai at the USTR. “She understands very well how the Chinese system works.”

Tai’s skills were on display in a 2009 complaint the United States filed with the World Trade Organization (WTO) over dozens of Chinese export restrictions on raw materials such as bauxite, magnesium and zinc. The United States said the quotas, which raised materials’ prices for companies outside China, were prohibited under global trade rules and gave Chinese manufacturers a competitive advantage.

The WTO eventually sided with the United States and ordered China to drop many of the restrictions.

Tai will succeed Robert E. Lighthizer, who was the intellectual muscle behind President Donald Trump’s protectionist impulses.

Her low-key demeanor will depart from Lighthizer’s sometimes acerbic negotiating style. In 2019, Tai won significant praise for her role in negotiating changes to the draft version of a new North American trade deal, which helped satisfy Democratic trade skeptics without alienating U.S. negotiating partners.

In marathon bargaining sessions, Tai helped design a creative approach to enforcing workers’ rights in Mexico, which involved the right to challenge the operations of individual Mexican factories.

“Katherine understood clearly that enforcement could get Democrats on board,” said Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Tai’s boss.

At the end of those talks, Neal said he told her: “You should get a Nobel Prize in economics.”

As Tai awaited confirmation, the administration took steps toward a resolution of a 16-year trade dispute with the European Union over commercial aircraft subsidies. Earlier this month, Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen agreed to a four-month suspension of tariffs on a variety of products while they redouble efforts to reach a negotiated settlement.

During her confirmation hearings, Tai vowed to make a settlement with the E.U. an early priority.

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In written answers to lawmakers’ questions, Tai said she would “seek to determine the impact of trade policies on workers’ wages and economic security and take that impact into account as we develop new policy.”

She also echoed Trump administration complaints about the WTO, saying “reforms are needed” to discourage its appellate panel from infringing on U.S. rights.

“The Appellate Body has overstepped its authority and erred in interpreting WTO agreements in a number of cases, to the detriment of the United States and other WTO members. In addition, the Appellate Body has failed to follow existing rules created to ensure that disputes are resolved in a timely manner,” Tai wrote.

Tai also avoided specifics on two central questions: the fate of the existing tariffs on most imported Chinese goods and prospects for the United States to rejoin a Pacific trade deal that Trump quit within days of taking office in 2017.

“Much has changed in the world since the original [Trans-Pacific Partnership] was signed in 2016,” Tai wrote, adding only that she would consult with lawmakers on the road ahead.

Tai, who was born in Connecticut, speaks fluent Mandarin and in her spare time enjoys gardening and wrestling with jigsaw puzzles. She has degrees from Harvard Law School and Yale University.