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Billionaire Wilbur Ross confirmed as commerce secretary

Wilbur L. Ross Jr., Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of W. L. Ross & Company speaks at the 2009 Reuters Restructuring Summit in New York September 29, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Segar/Files Photo

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The Senate confirmed billionaire investor Wilbur Ross as commerce secretary Monday evening, with a vote of 72 yeas to 27 nays.

Ross easily cleared the Senate Commerce Committee and a procedural vote by the full Senate.

So far, the Senate has confirmed 15 out of 22 Trump Cabinet or Cabinet-level picks requiring confirmation. Senators also moved forward Monday on President Trump’s nomination of Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke to lead the Interior Department, voting 67-31 to limit debate. A final vote on confirmation could occur on Tuesday or Wednesday.

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

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.

Former commerce secretaries have praised him, including one who served under former President Barack Obama.

“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.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts criticized Ross’ business ties to Russia and the way he ran a mortgage lender during the housing crisis.

“Mr. Ross has extensive ties to Russia. He plans to keep making money from his major oil shipping companies while working as Commerce Secretary. He’s made billions off the backs of struggling home owners,” Warren said. “He is practically a cartoon stereotype of a Wall Street fat cat.”

At his confirmation hearing, Ross was not asked about business ties to Russia or his work as a mortgage lender, and he did not address the issues. Senators did note that Ross is divesting from much of his business empire.

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.