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UPDATE 2-Katherine Tai confirmed by Senate as first woman of color to be U.S. trade chief

(Adds EU trade chief, industry comments)

WASHINGTON, March 17 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Wednesday voted unanimously to confirm veteran government trade lawyer Katherine Tai as the first woman of color to serve as U.S. Trade Representative, putting her to work enforcing trade deals, confronting China’s trade practices and patching up ties with U.S. allies.

The rare 98-0 vote for Tai, a Yale and Harvard-educated daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, reflects support from pro-labor Democrats, traditional free-trade Republicans and China hawks from both parties.

Tai, 47, formerly served as the chief Democratic trade counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee, where she helped to negotiate stronger labor rights provisions in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. She also was USTR’s head of China trade enforcement during the Obama administration.

Tai will immediately get to work on a range of issues, including festering disputes with European Union countries over aircraft subsidies and digital services taxes and prodding China to comply with World Trade Organization rules and a “Phase 1” trade deal with the United States.

EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis congratulated Tai in a tweet, saying he wanted to quickly resolve trade disputes, including the one over government subsidies for Boeing Co and Airbus SE.

“The EU is ready to engage immediately & constructively to reboot the transatlantic trade agenda,” Dombrovskis tweeted.

Congratulations and requests from industry also rolled in after the vote, including pleas for relief from tariffs imposed in trade fights that erupted during former President Donald Trump’s administration.

The Distilled Sprits Council urged that negotiations with the EU and Britain be prioritized to “secure the immediate suspension of tariffs on American Whiskey.”

The American Chemistry Council called for trade policies that enhance U.S. competitiveness in the sector, including “access to new markets, tariff relief, and greater regulatory coherence.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer called Tai “one of our most seasoned experts in international trade” and said she would play a crucial role in enforcing U.S. trade deals and ensuring a level playing field for American workers and businesses. In Senate floor remarks, he did not mention negotiating new trade deals.

“She will be an essential player in restoring America’s credibility with our trading partners and promoting international cooperation to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems, from the global pandemic to climate change,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “I have not a single doubt that Ms. Tai is the right person for the job.”

Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by David Gregorio and Richard Chang

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