The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the nomination of Robert Zoellick (search) for the State Department's No. 2 position on Wednesday.

By voice vote, the panel approved Zoellick, who served as U.S. trade representative in the first Bush administration. Easy confirmation by the full Senate is expected.

Zoellick is returning to the State Department where he was undersecretary for economic affairs in the administration of President Bush's father, George H.W. Bush.

As trade representative he completed negotiations that brought China and Taiwan into the World Trade Organization (search), and completed free trade agreements with Singapore, Chile, Australia, Morcoco, five Central American countries, the Dominican Republic and Bahrain.

Testifying Tuesday before the Senate committee, Zoellick said Latin American nations must join together to protect democracy against "creeping authoritarianism," and cited President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela as a problem in that area.

If confirmed, Zoellick would succeed Richard Armitage (search) as deputy secretary of state.