(Adds Senate vote results)
By David Lawder
WASHINGTON Feb 27 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
The U.S. Senate voted 72-27 to confirm the 79-year-old
corporate turnaround expert's nomination, with strong support
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
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
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