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(Adds Senate vote results)
By David Lawder
WASHINGTON, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross easily won confirmation as U.S. commerce secretary on Monday, clearing President Donald Trump's top trade official to start work on renegotiating trade relationships with China and Mexico.
The U.S. Senate voted 72-27 to confirm the 79-year-old corporate turnaround expert's nomination, with strong support from Democrats.
Ross is set to become an influential voice in Trump's economic team after helping shape the president's opposition to multilateral free trade deals such as the now-scrapped Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Ross drew votes from 19 Democrats and one independent, partly because of an endorsement from the United Steelworkers union for his efforts in restructuring bankrupt steel companies in the early 2000s, which saved numerous plants and thousands of jobs.
Ross was criticized by some Democrats as another billionaire in a Trump Cabinet that says it is focused on the working class, and for being a "vulture" investor who has eliminated some jobs. Reuters reported last month that Ross's companies had shipped some 2,700 jobs overseas since 2004.
The investor will oversee a sprawling agency with nearly 44,000 employees responsible for combating the dumping of imports below cost into U.S. markets, collecting census and critical economic data, weather forecasting, fisheries management, promoting the United States to foreign investors and regulating the export of sensitive technologies.
While commerce secretaries rarely take the spotlight in Washington, Ross is expected to play an outsize role in pursuing Trump's campaign pledge to slash U.S. trade deficits and bring manufacturing jobs back to America.
Trump has designated Ross to lead the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, a job that in past administrations would have been left to the U.S. Trade Representative's office.
Ross will join other major players on the economic team, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council.
Some experts said Ross could serve as a counterweight to advisers such as Peter Navarro, the University of California-Irvine economics professor who heads Trump's newly created White House National Trade Council. Navarro has advocated a controversial 45 percent across-the-board tariff on imports from China that Trump threatened during his campaign.
"I expect that Ross will quickly become the administration’s chief trade spokesman, and that Navarro’s influence will be felt indirectly, rather than through public statements or testimony," said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow and trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
At his confirmation hearing, Ross downplayed chances of a trade war with China, while calling it the "most protectionist" large economy. He vowed to level the playing field for U.S. companies competing with Chinese imports and those trying to do business in China's highly restricted economy.
Ross, estimated by Forbes to be worth $2.9 billion, built his fortune in the late 1990s and early 2000s by investing in distressed companies in steel, coal, textiles and auto parts, restructuring them and often benefiting from tariff protections put in place by the Commerce Department. (Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)