By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Acting Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis on Tuesday got what appeared to be a bipartisan endorsement from top senators to be the next U.S. trade representative.
"You'd make a good U.S. trade representative yourself because you're one of these people who has an open mind who is really trying to do the best job that he can," Senator Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said during a hearing with Marantis on the White House's trade agenda.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus chimed in a few minutes later, calling Marantis "very, very talented" and praising his work as the panel's former chief counsel. "You made a lot of things happen," the Montana Democrat said.
Marantis worked on the committee from 2005 to 2009, when he left to join President Barack Obama's administration as a deputy U.S. trade representative overseeing Asia and Africa.
He is one of several people who have been mentioned as a possible replacement for Ron Kirk, who left the U.S. trade post last week after four years on the job.
The warm words from the Senate Finance Committee leaders came as the White House confirmed that acting budget director Jeff Zients would be staying in his current job for now, thus taking him out of the running for the post of U.S. trade representative.
Zients had been considered the White House favorite for the position, but he was an unpopular choice with members of the Senate Finance Committee for proposing to make the U.S. Trade Representative's Office part of a revamped Commerce Department.
The USTR is an independent agency and the proposed move threatened the Senate Finance Committee's jealously guarded jurisdiction over trade. The Commerce Committee currently oversees Commerce Department issues.
Hatch, who had not yet heard Zients was staying at the budget office, said he was disturbed by persistent rumors "that the president may nominate as his next trade representative the chief architect of this proposal to end USTR as we know it."
"I hope that is not the case," the Utah senator said as news was breaking about Zients' future in the administration.
White House international economic affairs adviser Michael Froman is considered another top candidate for USTR.
But some believe if Froman really wanted the job, Obama would have already nominated his close aide and former Harvard Law School classmate for the position.
Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and former U.S. trade representative, criticized the White House for not more aggressively pursuing new trade agreements during its first four years in office, but he also had warm words for Marantis.
"You know this committee pretty well. That's one reason we like having you down there because you understand the fact that members of the Senate, particularly this committee, like to play a significant role in trade," Portman said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Eric Beech)