(Reuters) – President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he will nominate former Edison International chief executive John Bryson to be Commerce secretary, filling a top trade job with an energy expert and seasoned businessman.
Bryson would replace Gary Locke, whom Obama has chosen to become U.S. ambassador to China. His nomination could be thwarted by Senate Republicans, who have threatened to withhold support until Obama puts forward long-stalled trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia.
Obama announced his choice of Bryson in the middle of a review that could change how the Commerce Department works.
In March the president ordered a 90-day study to examine whether to consolidate a dozen trade agencies scattered across the federal government — including the U.S. Trade Representative’s office and the U.S. Export-Import Bank — into a revamped Commerce Department focused more on exports.
Obama has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports over five years, a task Bryson would be charged with helping to complete.
Bryson’s appointment continues a White House trend of nominating senior business executives to top government posts, but his energy background seemed to intrigue the president as much as his corporate experience.
“In the years ahead, a key to achieving our export goal will be promoting clean energy in America. That’s how we’ll reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and that’s how we’ll encourage new businesses and jobs to take root on our shores,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “John understands this better than virtually anybody.”
Bryson was chairman and chief executive of energy group Edison International from 1990 to 2008. At the beginning of his career he founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Bryson’s nomination will need Senate confirmation, and Republicans warned that was not guaranteed.
Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s spokesman, Don Stewart, sent an email to reporters noting that 44 Republican senators signed a letter in March saying “we will use all the tools at our disposal to force action (on trade agreements), including withholding support for any nominee for Commerce secretary and any trade-related nominees.”
One of Bryson’s first tasks would be to help the White House win congressional approval of those trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama left over from the administration of former President George W. Bush.
There is strong Republican support for the three agreements, but many Democrats remain opposed despite changes negotiated by the White House to address their concerns.
Bryson can also be expected to play a big role in U.S.-China commercial relations.
The department oversees cases brought against China and other trading partners accused of engaging in unfair trading practices. He would join U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk as U.S. co-chair of an annual forum known as the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, where the two countries try to find solutions to trade irritants.
U.S. business groups reacted positively to Bryson’s nomination.
“We fully support the president’s choice and urge swift Senate confirmation,” the Business Roundtable, a group of top CEOs, said in a statement.
“With his extensive knowledge of the private sector and years of experience successfully running a major company, we hope Mr. Bryson will be a strong voice for American businesses,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobby group said.
Obama had rocky relations with the business community during his first two years in office. He sought to repair that after last November’s congressional elections, beginning with his choice of former banker Bill Daley to be his chief of staff.
Daley, a former Commerce secretary under President Bill Clinton, led the search process for Bryson.
Bryson serves on several corporate boards, including Boeing Co and Walt Disney Co, according to the White House.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Doug Palmer; Editing by Eric Beech)