WASHINGTON The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to approve former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk to be U.S. trade representative, three months after President Barack Obama tapped him for the job.
Kirk enters office at a time when world economic woes have sharply cut U.S. exports and global trade is expected to contract this year for the first time since 1982.
The Texas Democrat told senators he would focus more on making sure other countries live up to commitments they have made under existing trade agreements than on negotiating new deals to open markets to U.S. exports.
Many believe that signals an increase in the number of cases the United States will bring against China and other trading partners at the World Trade Organization.
Action on Kirk's nomination took a back seat to work in Congress on economic bills and nominees to higher-priority posts.
The Senate voted 92-5 to approve Kirk, despite errors in his tax returns that required him and his wife to write checks to the Internal Revenue Service this month for $7,785.
Kirk, the first black to hold the trade representative job, has promised to work with Congress to win approval of three free trade agreements negotiated by the administration of former President George W. Bush, but has said two of those agreements represent significant challenges.
A free trade deal with Panama could be approved relatively quickly if that country agrees to make a number of labor law reforms, Kirk recently told the Senate Finance Committee.
The United States will walk away from a South Korea pact unless that country agrees to change auto provisions that now favor South Korean automakers too much, Kirk said.
Colombia needs to do more to stop violence against trade unionists before that deal is approved, he said.
The United States also remains committed to reaching a deal in the long-running Doha round of world trade talks, but developing countries such as Brazil, India and China needed to make better offers to open their markets, Kirk said.
MCCAIN WORRIES ABOUT EXPORTS
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said he thought Kirk was the right person for "rebuilding America's faith in the benefits of international trade."
"He will remain constantly on the lookout for America's workers. He will shine a spotlight on trade violations. He will vigilantly enforce our international agreements. And he will speed our economic recovery by opening markets for American exports," Baucus told the Senate before the vote.
But Senator John McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, said he was only reluctantly voting to confirm Kirk, and expressed reservations about the new administration's trade policies.
"American exports have been one of the few bright spots in a terrible economic situation," McCain said. "Congress and the administration should be working to break down barriers to trade, however we are doing the opposite."
McCain pointed to provisions in the recent economic stimulus bill requiring the government to use American steel for certain projects and another provision in a spending bill that effectively killed a program to allow Mexican long-haul trucks onto U.S. highways.
"Both of them send a signal to the world that America is going down the path of protectionism," he said. McCain, who represents Arizona which shares a border with Mexico, was particularly incensed about the truck program.
Kirk is a supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement and as mayor of Dallas from 1995 to 2001 worked to expand that city's exports. He faces the task of renegotiating NAFTA to fulfill Obama's campaign promises to put enforceable labor and environmental provisions in the agreement.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Cynthia Osterman)