By Alexandra Alper and Karen Freifeld
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Senator Tom Cotton is holding up a vote to confirm Alan Estevez as the U.S. Commerce Department's undersecretary for industry and security until he gets answers to difficult questions about technology exports to China.
In a letter dated Oct. 14 and seen by Reuters, Cotton asks Estevez to commit to strengthening U.S. restrictions on exporting semiconductor software and technology to China and to accelerating the roll-out of new rules to tighten export controls for advanced technologies.
The letter, also signed by Republican senator Bill Hagerty, asks Estevez to consider extending a Trump administration rule - that currently only applies to Huawei - to blacklisted Chinese firms with links to the military or human rights violations. That rule further restricted access for the Chinese telecoms giant to advanced semiconductor chips.
The job at the Commerce Department oversees exports to all countries but decisions over cutting-edge technology exports to China have given the position tremendous power over Chinese companies dependent on U.S. technology in recent years.
The Department of Commerce did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Many industry watchers saw the choice of Estevez, a former Defense Department official with a limited track record on China, as a safe bet.
But Cotton - or any other senator - can hold up a fast-track confirmation process that requires consent by all 100 senators.
Since the Republican has not had the chance to question the nominee, he is pausing the confirmation process until he receives answers to the questions posed in the letter, a Cotton staffer said.
Republicans are not the only ones holding up Estevez's nomination. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez came out against Estevez when the Senate Banking Committee took up his confirmation and also opposes expediting a final full Senate vote.
His opposition stems from the former Pentagon official's response to questions regarding returning oversight of U.S. firearms exports to the State Department.
"I was not satisfied with Mr. Estevez's non-answers as to whether the Biden administration was planning to fulfill President Biden's campaign promise and finally reverse the Trump administration's dangerous stripping of oversight authority of U.S. firearm sales from the State Department's Munitions List to the Commerce Department," Menendez said in a statement.
The Trump administration transferred jurisdiction on exports of semiautomatic pistols, assault rifles and related firearms from State to the less-restrictive Commerce Control List, which also eliminated congressional review for such sales.
Estevez will be in good company. Other Biden nominees are being held up by Senator Ted Cruz, who is using the process to halt a Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline, White House officials and Democrats in Congress say.
Estevez testified last month before the Senate banking committee, which later voted in favor of advancing his bid to the full Senate.
During the hearing and under questioning from Hagerty, Estevez said he expected to keep Huawei on a blacklist unless "things change" and pledged to "look at" Honor, a former unit of Huawei, to see whether the Chinese telecoms giant was using the spun-off company to minimize or circumvent its own blacklist designation. Republican senators have called on the Biden administration to blacklist Honor.
In the letter on Thursday, the senators also asked for Estevez to say whether he thought the global spread of Huawei Cloud Services posed a data security and privacy concern for the United States, and whether Honor should be placed on the Commerce Department's trade blacklist.
(Reporting by Karen Freifeld and Alexandra Alper, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)