Sen. Finance Committee Backs Kirk As Trade Rep.

Some key figures in President Obama's administration are still waiting to be confirmed. Ron Kirk, the nominee for U.S. trade representative, could have faced questions about back taxes. But that was barely mentioned Monday night as the former Dallas mayor breezed through a 45 minute confirmation hearing. Senators were more interested in how the Obama administration plans to handle some controversial trade agreements.

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Some key figures in President Obama's administration are still waiting to be confirmed. One of them, Ron Kirk, the nominee for U.S. trade representative, could have faced questions about back taxes, but that was barely mentioned as the former Dallas mayor breezed through a confirmation hearing last night that lasted about 45 minutes, which for a Senate hearing is not long. Senators were much more interested in how the Obama administration plans to handles some controversial trade agreements. NPR's David Welna has this report.

DAVID WELNA: For the first time in more than a quarter century, the U.S. has seen a downturn in foreign trade. Convening last night's confirmation hearing, the Senate Finance Committee's Democratic chairman, Max Baucus, described the situation starkly.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): Our economy is in recession. Our consensus to advance international trade is frayed, and our faith of the international trading system is badly shaken.

WELNA: But Republican John Cornyn told the panel that if anyone should be U.S. trade representative, it's fellow Texan Ron Kirk.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): I believe President Obama has chosen the right man for the job. As mayor of Dallas, Ron Kirk saw how open markets create new opportunities for our people. He lead trade missions to other nations. He recruited foreign investors. And he supported the North American Free Trade Agreement.

WELNA: And that's from someone who ran against Kirk six years ago for a Senate seat and won. Cornyn did not mention the recent discovery that Kirk had underpaid his taxes. Kirk himself seemed to allude to that awkward fact when he told the panel he was thrilled to have been nominated.

Mr. RON KIRK (U.S. Trade Representative Nominee): It's been a long and strange journey getting to this point, but I very much appreciate the opportunity to be with you today, and I especially want to think Senator Cornyn for his graciousness in introducing me.

WELNA: Kirk describes himself as a raging pragmatist and he said he was not just seeking to cut more trade deals.

Mr. KIRK: I don't come to this job with deal fever, and we're not going to do deals just for the sake of doing so.

WELNA: Instead, Kirk said, his top priority would be to enforce the rules of existing trade agreements. Iowa Republican Charles Grassley pressed him on a pending trade deal with Colombia.

Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): If confirmed, will you commit to work with me to implement the trade agreement this year?

WELNA: But Kirk was making no promises.

Mr. KIRK: I cannot commit to a certain timetable. As I've said, we're going to take a comprehensive review of all of our trade policies because we want to move forward in a strategic rather than a tactical manner, but we do agree with you that Colombia provides a great opportunity and we'll work with you to see if we can't get that advanced sooner rather than later.

WELNA: Kirk was equally non-committal about a stalled trade pact with South Korea.

Mr. KIRK: The president has said, and I agree, the agreement as it is just simply isn't fair, and if we don't get that right, we'll be prepared to step away from that.

WELNA: Kirk said a pending trade deal with Panama seemed the most doable, but even that would have to be reviewed.

David Welna, NPR News.

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