Business in the dark on Obama trade pick

WASHINGTON Tue Dec 16, 2008 5:31pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. business still has few clues who will be the next U.S. trade representative, but hopes it can work with President-elect Barack Obama on an agenda to open markets around the world, a top official at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said on Tuesday.

"I have no idea who that's going to be," Daniel Christman, senior vice president of international affairs at the business group, told reporters when asked who he expected Obama would pick to be the United States' chief trade negotiator.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat who two weeks ago was thought to be the top candidate for the job, is now expected to stay in the U.S. House of Representatives, renewing speculation about who might be in line for the trade post.

The list includes Dan Tarullo, a Georgetown University law professor and former White House official who advised Obama during the campaign.

But many say they think Tarullo would rather be Treasury undersecretary for international economic affairs.

Others seen as possible candidates are former Rep. Harold Ford, a Tennessee Democrat who now heads the Democratic Leadership Council, and Ron Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas who has acknowledged having talks with the Obama transition team about taking a job in the new administration.

Becerra was recently elected vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and is said to feel indebted to colleagues who elected him after he pushed hard for the job.

Obama's trade and Commerce Department transition teams also revealed few details of the president-elect's plans for trade in 2009 when they met with the U.S. business group.

"The conversations were deep and extensive, but they were principally focused on listening to our views," Christman said.

Obama promised during the campaign to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement to add stronger labor and environmental provisions, raising fears in the business community about potentially open-ended negotiations that could unravel or weaken the 14-year-old trade pact.

Obama also opposed approval of free trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea, putting him at odds with the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.

Despite such differences, Christman said he was optimistic the business group could find common ground with the Obama administration on trade.

The Chamber of Commerce supports an expansion of federal aid program to help workers who have lost their job because of trade as an early step in 2009 toward rebuilding bipartisan support for trade deals, he said.

(Editing by David Wiessler and Xavier Briand)

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