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Biden expected to pick Katherine Tai as top U.S. trade envoy

President-elect Joe Biden speaking in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday
President-elect Joe Biden speaking in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

President-elect Joe Biden is set to nominate Katherine Tai to be the top U.S. trade envoy, according to two people familiar with his plans.

Tai, who is chief trade counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee, will be tapped as U.S. trade representative, according to the two people, who spoke Wednesday on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about it.

The role is a Cabinet position, and Senate confirmation will be required. Biden’s selection of Tai, who is Asian American, reflects his promise to choose a diverse Cabinet that reflects the makeup of the country.

Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Tai earlier oversaw China trade enforcement for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, setting U.S. strategy in trade disputes with Beijing. Biden’s trade representative will inherit a trade war with China, put on pause by an interim pact in January that left many of the hardest issues unresolved and U.S. taxes remaining on $360 billion in Chinese imports.

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As the top trade staff member at Ways and Means, Tai handled negotiations last year with the Trump administration over a revamped North American trade deal. Under pressure from congressional Democrats, Trump’s trade team agreed to strengthen the pact to make it easier for Mexican workers to form independent unions and demand better pay and benefits — decreasing the incentives for U.S. firms to move south of the border to take advantage of cheap and compliant labor.

The administration also dropped from the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, what Democrats considered a giveaway to pharmaceutical companies that could have kept drug prices high.

President-elect Joe Biden’s Goldilocks Cabinet picks underscore his deftness at hugging the center in politics and policy, as he tries to avoid the bitter partisanship that has hobbled recent presidents.

Tai is considered a problem-solving pragmatist on trade policy, which often breaks down into an ideological divide between free traders and protectionists. In a letter to Biden on Nov. 24, California Democratic Rep. Judy Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and nine other female House members praised Tai’s “experience and diplomatic abilities” and said she was “uniquely qualified” to deal with Canada and Mexico on the USMCA and with U.S.-China trade tensions.

“Katherine would be the first Asian American and the first woman of color to serve in this role, breaking barriers and clearing the way for others to follow,” Chu added in a statement Wednesday.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking Democratic member on the finance committee, called Tai “an inspired choice” for the position.

“Ms. Tai has the experience she needs to succeed as USTR, and her record of getting wins for American workers demonstrates she knows how to champion the values that matter to U.S. families,” Wyden said. “She worked closely with me and my staff to craft the strongest-ever protections for American workers in a trade agreement, and pass them into law with bipartisan support.”

He urged Senate Republicans to quickly confirm her.


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