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Billionaire heads toward confirmation as Commerce secretary

By Stephen Ohlemacher Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross is headed toward confirmation as Commerce secretary in President Donald Trump’s administration.

The Senate is set to vote on Ross’ nomination Monday evening. Ross easily cleared the Senate Commerce Committee and a procedural vote by the full Senate.

Senators also are expected to move forward on Trump’s nomination of Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke to lead the Interior Department. If Zinke clears a procedural vote set for late Monday a final vote on confirmation could occur on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Ross’ confirmation has gone much smoother than other Trump nominees’ approval. Former Commerce secretaries have praised him, including one who served under former President Barack Obama.

Senators from both political parties were deferential to Ross at his nearly four-hour confirmation hearing, which was much more subdued than the confirmation hearings of other Trump nominees.

“I believe his extensive management experience in the private sector, and his understanding of the challenges faced by workers and businesses alike, will equip him well for the job of leading the Department of Commerce,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Commerce Committee.

Breaking with Republican orthodoxy, Ross said the Trump administration will work quickly to re-do the North American Free Trade Agreement, a massive trade pact with Canada and Mexico that has boosted trade but still stings laid-off workers across the Midwest.

Ross said all free trade agreements should be systematically re-opened every few years to make sure they are working in the best interests of the U.S.

Ross said he is pro-free trade but noted his close relationship with the United Steelworkers union as proof that he will fight to protect American jobs. The union has endorsed him.

NAFTA was negotiated and signed by President Bill Clinton, with broad support among Republicans in Congress.

Worth an estimated $2.9 billion, Ross has extensive business ties around the globe. In 2000, he founded WL Ross & Co., a private equity firm. As part of his ethics agreement, Ross will divest from the firm, if confirmed.

The commerce secretary has several roles in promoting American business interests in the U.S. and abroad. The department handles trade issues, working to attract foreign investment to the U.S. The department also oversees agencies that manage fisheries, weather forecasting and the Census Bureau, which will conduct a count in 2020.

Ross said he has experience at that agency; he was a census-taker while he attended business school.

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