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Senate panel back Obama nominee Froman for top trade post

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday approved the nomination of White House chief international economic affairs adviser Mike Froman to be U.S. trade representative, setting the stage for full Senate approval.

"I am glad he got such strong support in the committee," Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, said in a statement after the voice vote. "He now deserves that same support in the full Senate. We need to quickly approve this nomination so Mr. Froman can hit the ground running and get to work."

Froman is President Barack Obama's third cabinet nominee to receive committee approval this week. The Senate Commerce Committee on Monday approved the nominations of Charlotte, North Carolina, Mayor Anthony Foxx to be transportation secretary and billionaire Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker to be commerce secretary.

Last week, the Senate Banking Committee backed Fred Hochberg for a second term as president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, a non-cabinet post that has played a key role in supporting Obama's goal of doubling exports.

So far, no senator has threatened to block any of the nominations, which all moved through the committees with strong bipartisan support.

However, the influential conservative group Club for Growth has urged senators to delay action on the Hochberg nomination in the hope that doing so would shut down the Ex-Im Bank, which it sees as a form of "corporate welfare."

Hochberg's term expires in July, as do the terms of two other Ex-Im board members, potentially leaving the bank without a quorum to approve new transactions.

On Friday, Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, again highlighted Froman's use of an offshore tax haven, despite Obama's harsh criticisms of those investments.

"This is an example of the president's having one set of standards for his political opponents and another for his friends and supporters," Grassley said, noting that Pritzker and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew also had offshore accounts.

Froman already has a leading role in crafting U.S. trade policy. Last weekend, he attended the informal summit meeting in California between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and next week he will join Obama for a meeting of the leaders of the G8 industrialized countries in Northern Ireland.

If confirmed by the full Senate, as expected, Froman will replace Ron Kirk as the top U.S. trade negotiator in March. Kirk left the administration in March after four years in the job.

Froman would take over the position as the United States tackles a huge trade negotiation with 11 other countries in the Asia Pacific region and prepares to start another with the 27 nations of the European Union.

During his confirmation hearing last week, Froman pledged to work with Congress to win renewal of "trade promotion authority," which expired in 2007.

That legislation would allow the White House to submit trade agreements to Congress for straight up-or-down votes without any amendments, and give lawmakers the opportunity to set negotiating objectives for the two pacts.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Paul Simao)

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