U.S. Senate confirms Trump trade representative ahead of NAFTA talks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, a critical position ahead of renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

Delays in Senate confirmation of veteran trade lawyer Robert Lighthizer more than 100 days after his nomination have set back Trump’s trade agenda, including the start of talks about revamping one of the world’s biggest trading blocs.

Lighthizer won support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Republican-led Senate on Thursday, with an 82-14 vote to confirm his nomination.

The administration has had to wait for Lighthizer to be in place before triggering the formal process to begin renegotiating NAFTA.

It was not immediately clear when the White House would begin that process. To do so, the Trump administration must send a letter to Congress declaring its intention to launch negotiations in 90 days.

The Republican president has said the 23-year-old trade pact devastated U.S. workers and has vowed to tear it up if he fails to get a better deal.

Some Democrats, while critical of Trump’s views on trade, said they were confident Lighthizer would work to help U.S. workers.

“He’s a real pro,” Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said before voting in favor.

Lighthizer’s approval came despite the objections of two Republican senators, John McCain of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who said they were worried he did not appreciate NAFTA’s benefits.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, in charge of trade ties with the United States, said she did not expect the administration would move immediately on NAFTA.

“I imagine that Ambassador Lighthizer may need to spend a bit of time in consultations prior to formally triggering that 90-day period,” she said on a conference call on Thursday night.

While the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico has ballooned since NAFTA was enacted in 1994, U.S. farmers have profited from exports to America’s southern neighbor, while automakers have cut costs by building cross-border supply chains that benefit from lower Mexican wages.

Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and voted in favor of Lighthizer’s nomination, also urged the incoming trade representative not to put at risk the gains NAFTA had brought.

“There are definitely opportunities to update and improve NAFTA,” Hatch said. “But it is important that the administration follow the spirit of the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm.”

Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Tom Brown and Peter Cooney