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Senate panel backs Obama picks for Commerce, Transportation

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Commerce Committee on Monday gave strong bipartisan backing to President Barack Obama's nominees to head the Departments of Transportation and Commerce, sending them to the Senate floor for approval.

The committee voted unanimously for Charlotte, North Carolina Mayor Anthony Foxx to be U.S. Transportation secretary and billionaire Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker to be Commerce secretary, filling two more spots on Obama's second-term economic team.

It was not clear how soon the full Senate would vote on the nominations. That could depend on whether Republicans agree to work with Democrats to move them speedily.

"There has been strong bipartisan support for these nominees, and it was evident again today," Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said in a statement. "I urge my colleagues to act quickly now to schedule votes on their nominations."

The votes came as Obama nominated his longtime economic adviser Jason Furman to be chief White House economist and there were signs of progress on other pending nominations.

The Senate Finance Committee will vote on Tuesday on the nomination of White House international economic affairs adviser Mike Froman to be U.S. Trade Representative.

The Senate Banking Committee voted last week to support U.S. Export-Import Bank President Fred Hochberg for another four-term at the government-run export finance institution, also sending that nomination to the full Senate for approval.

Foxx, whose city hosted the 2012 Democratic party convention where Obama was nominated to run for a second term as president, is considered a rising star in the Democratic party.

He has limited experience in transportation issues outside his work in Charlotte on streetcar and light rail projects as well as airport improvements.

At his hearing, Foxx promised to work with Congress to find a way to fund huge U.S. infrastructure needs at a time of tight budgets and Republican opposition to raising taxes.

Pritzker, an heiress to the Hyatt hotel fortune and one of the wealthiest Americans, was national finance chair of Obama's 2008 campaign and co-chair of his 2012 re-election bid.

A 184-page financial disclosure form released by the White House provided a detailed view of her wealth, including $54 million in consulting fees she received from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce Trust Co, which manages an offshore trust for the Pritzker family in the Bahamas.

During last year's presidential campaign, Obama criticized his Republican rival Mitt Romney for using similar offshore accounts to avoid paying U.S. income taxes.

That has prompted some Republicans to accuse Obama of hypocrisy for nominating Pritzker to his Cabinet, as well as Froman and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who also used offshore tax havens.

Senator John Thune, the ranking Republican on the commerce panel, referred to the issue in a statement explaining his reasons for voting for both Pritzker and Foxx.

"While the president has had strong words for others who have benefited from offshore tax havens, we should not let his double-standard on this issue stand in the way of a qualified nominee," Thune said.

Pritzker pledged during her confirmation hearing to be a voice for business within the administration and to push for policies to increase U.S. competitiveness.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Christopher Wilson)

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