Wilbur Ross' Commerce Confirmation Hearing Highlights GOP Trade Divide The Commerce Secretary nominee signaled that the Trump administration would respond aggressively to trade violations, but several GOP senators worried that such confrontations could harm the economy.
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Ex-Democrat Wilbur Ross Makes Some Republicans Nervous At Confirmation Hearing

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Ex-Democrat Wilbur Ross Makes Some Republicans Nervous At Confirmation Hearing

Ex-Democrat Wilbur Ross Makes Some Republicans Nervous At Confirmation Hearing

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Donald Trump's pick for commerce secretary didn't get quite the grilling that some of Trump's other nominees did from Democratic senators. Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross actually sees eye to eye with some Democrats and makes some Republicans nervous. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Wilbur Ross is a former Democrat. He's won the support of labor unions. He saved tens of thousands of jobs buying and basically rescuing bankrupt steel companies. And Democrats today largely offered Ross a warm reception, though that did not extend to the incoming president.

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RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: I think you have really made a very personal sacrifice.

ARNOLD: Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said he was impressed by Ross' decision to sell off a huge portion of his assets to avoid conflicts of interest.

BLUMENTHAL: I don't want to embarrass you or presume, but of all of the billions of dollars in holdings, you have divested more than 90 percent. You have resigned from 50 positions. The process has been enormously complex and challenging and costly to you personally, correct?

WILBUR ROSS: Yes, sir.

BLUMENTHAL: And I want to ask you very directly - shouldn't the president of the United States do the same?

ROSS: Well, as I understand it, the ethics rules that apply to Senate to approve nominees do not apply to the president.

BLUMENTHAL: But simply as a matter of appearance and morality, for that matter, you were able to do it. Why not the president?

ROSS: I'm not familiar enough, Senator, with the exactitudes of his holdings.

ARNOLD: Ross politely deflected ethical questions about Donald Trump during the hearing, but, interestingly, some of the deepest concerns about Ross came not from Democrats, but from Republicans. Both Ross and Trump have talked about protecting U.S. businesses by erecting tariffs against foreign competitors. That makes many free trade Republicans nervous. Senator Todd Young from Indiana said a lot of people in his state work for foreign companies.

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TODD YOUNG: Subaru in Lafayette employs 5,000. Toyota in Princeton - roughly 4,500 Hoosiers. So can you reassure the tens of thousands of autoworkers and others whose jobs rely on free trade that their livelihoods will not be put at risk by restrictive tariffs?

ARNOLD: Several other Republicans sought similar assurances from Ross. Ross basically said that he had no intention of damaging the U.S. economy by starting a trade war, but he also said that if other countries cheat, break trade agreements, that tariffs are crucial for enforcement.

(SOUNDBITE CONGRESSIONAL HEARING)

ROSS: We are a country of the rule of law. Some of these other countries are instead the law of the ruler. That's an asymmetry that permeates all kinds of sectors of their economies and ours, and we need to deal with that.

ARNOLD: Ross also said that the first thing he wants to do is deal with unfair trade barriers imposed by other countries, and he repeatedly talked about China.

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ROSS: It's a little weird that we have very low tariffs, and China has very high tariffs. That seems to me to be a bit of an imbalance.

ARNOLD: Unlike Donald Trump's often oversimplified rhetoric about trade, Ross offered nuance in his answers. He said he preferred carrots to sticks for dealing with trading partners. He acknowledged at one point that technology kills a lot of jobs and didn't just blame cheap labor abroad. This afternoon, Democrat and ranking member Senator Bill Nelson of Florida thanked Ross for his non-evasive answers and summed things up this way.

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BILL NELSON: This hearing is a piece of cake compared to some of the other nominees.

ARNOLD: So a betting person would probably put money on Wilbur Ross becoming the next commerce secretary of the United States. Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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