Cabinet

Wilbur Ross confirmed as Commerce secretary

Jan. 18, 2017: Commerce Secretary-designate Wilbur Ross testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington

Jan. 18, 2017: Commerce Secretary-designate Wilbur Ross testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Senate voted Monday to confirm billionaire investor Wilbur Ross as secretary of commerce in President Trump's Cabinet. 

Ross was approved by a vote of 72-27, with 20 Democrats and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, joining 51 Republicans to vote "aye." Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., did not vote due to his ongoing recovery from back surgery.

The Senate later voted 67-31 to move forward on the nomination of Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., to lead the Interior Department. A final vote on Zinke's confirmation is expected Wednesday.

Ross is the 14th member of Trump's Cabinet to be cofirmed, with seven nominees still to be voted on.

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, D-Mass., who voted "nay," had 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 (NAFTA), 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.