WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he will nominate former Edison International chief executive John Bryson to be Commerce secretary, filling a top trade job with an energy expert and seasoned businessman.
Bryson would replace Gary Locke, who Obama has chosen to become U.S. ambassador to China. His nomination could be thwarted by Senate Republicans, who have threatened to withhold support until Obama advances long-stalled trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia.
Trade has become a centerpiece of Obama’s efforts to boost the economy ahead of the 2012 presidential election. The White House has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports over five years, a task Bryson would be charged with helping to complete.
The appointment continues a White House trend of nominating senior business executives to top government posts but Bryson’s energy background seemed to intrigue the president as much as his corporate experience.
“In the years ahead, a key to achieving our export goal will be promoting clean energy in America,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “That’s how we’ll reduce our dependence on foreign oil and that’s how we’ll encourage new businesses and jobs to take root on our shores.
“John understands this better than virtually anybody,” Obama said, with Bryson and Locke standing at his side.
Bryson was chairman and chief executive of energy group Edison International from 1990 to 2008. At the beginning of his career he founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Obama announced his choice of Bryson in the middle of a review that could change how the Commerce Department works.
In March the president ordered a 90-day study to examine whether to consolidate a dozen trade agencies scattered across the federal government — including the U.S. Trade Representative’s office and the U.S. Export-Import Bank — into a revamped Commerce Department focused more on exports.
Bryson’s nomination will need Senate confirmation and Republicans warned that it is not guaranteed.
Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s spokesman, Don Stewart, sent an email to reporters noting that 44 Republican senators signed a letter in March saying “we will use all the tools at our disposal to force action (on trade agreements), including withholding support for any nominee for Commerce secretary and any trade-related nominees.”
The White House has said it will not submit legislation to Congress to implement trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama without a deal to extend aid to U.S. workers affected by overseas competition. Republicans want to move on the pacts, which are left over from the administration of former President George W. bush, right away.
If approved, one of Bryson’s first tasks would be to help the White House deal with that process.
There is strong Republican support for the three agreements but many Democrats remain opposed despite changes negotiated by the White House to address their concerns.
Bryson also can be expected to play a big role in U.S.-China commercial relations.
The Commerce Department oversees cases brought against China and other trading partners accused of engaging in unfair trading practices. Bryson would join U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk as U.S. co-chair of an annual forum known as the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, where the two countries try to find solutions to trade irritants.
U.S. business groups reacted positively to Bryson’s nomination.
“We fully support the president’s choice and urge swift Senate confirmation,” the Business Roundtable, a group of top CEOs, said in a statement.
“With his extensive knowledge of the private sector and years of experience successfully running a major company, we hope Mr. Bryson will be a strong voice for American businesses,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobby group said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council praised Bryson, its co-founder, for being a “visionary leader in promoting a clean environment and a strong economy.”
Obama had rocky relations with the business community during his first two years in office. He sought to repair that after November’s congressional elections, beginning with his choice of former banker Bill Daley to be his chief of staff.
Bryson serves on several boards, including Boeing Co and Walt Disney Co, according to the White House.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Doug Palmer, and Braden Reddall; Editing by Eric Beech and Bill Trott