By Ben Leubsdorf

WASHINGTON -- Wilbur Ross, President Donald Trump's choice to run the Commerce Department, cleared a key test Tuesday when a Senate panel approved his nomination.

The Senate Commerce Committee, on a voice vote, sent Mr. Ross, a billionaire private-equity investor and adviser to Mr. Trump on trade issues, to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.

Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), the committee's chairman, said he hopes the Senate will act quickly on Mr. Ross and Elaine Chao, whose nomination as transportation secretary also was approved Tuesday by the panel. Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the chamber, with a simple majority required for confirmation.

Mr. Ross had appeared last week before the SenateCommerce Committee, testifying for four hours on a wide range of topics covering the Commerce Department's sprawling responsibilities, from fisheries management to weather forecasting.

International trade was a special focus. Mr. Ross called China "the most protectionist country" among very large nations, talked up tougher enforcement of existing trade rules, and said tariffs play an important role as a negotiating tool and to punish wrongdoing. In addition, "all aspects" of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, "will be on the table," he said.

"We cannot afford trade that is inherently bad for American workers and for American businesses," Mr. Ross told lawmakers. "But I think there are plenty of opportunities to expand our exports, and I think the No. 1 objective will be expanding our exports."

His testimony appeared to reassure some lawmakers who back freer trade and have expressed unhappiness with some of Mr.Trump's campaign rhetoric on the issue. Mr. Thune said last week he was "comfortable" with Mr. Ross's approach during his confirmation hearing.

Mr. Trump has continued to take a tough line on trade since the election, and said Monday the U.S. will impose a "very major border tax" on companies that go overseas.

Mr. Ross, 79 has had a long career in business including a key role restructuring the U.S. steel industry in the early 2000s.

His extensive business ties and investment holdings present a complicated web of potential conflicts of interest in his new position. To avoid any impropriety, Mr. Ross has pledged to resign from dozens of positions and divest most of his financial interests upon confirmation.

Asked last week about investments he planned to retain and potential conflicts with his duties as Commerce secretary, Mr. Ross told lawmakers, "I intend to be quite scrupulous about recusal in any topic where there's the slightest scintilla of doubt."

His plan won praise from the Senate Commerce Committee's top Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who told Mr. Ross during the hearing that "it tells me that you are committed to doing the job the right way by placing the public's interests ahead of your own."

Write to Ben Leubsdorf at ben.leubsdorf@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 24, 2017 11:31 ET (16:31 GMT)

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