WASHINGTON (Reuters) - California congressman Xavier Becerra has emerged as a leading candidate to be the chief U.S. trade negotiator for President-elect Barack Obama, a Democratic official and lobbyists said on Wednesday.
Becerra, who would be the first Hispanic in the job, would take over as World Trade Organization members anxiously watch the incoming Obama administration for signs of its commitment to revive struggling global trade talks launched in 2001.
Becerra now serves on the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade.
Industry sources also said former senior Treasury official Gary Gensler was a possible candidate to lead the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
A Democratic official said Obama was strongly considering Becerra for U.S. trade representative but had not made a final decision. Business lobbyists said they had heard from sources on Capitol Hill that Becerra was a top candidate.
Becerra, 50, would be a surprise choice after early speculation focused on Dan Tarullo and Lael Brainard, who both worked in the White House on international economic issues under President Bill Clinton.
But Becerra’s 16 years of experience in Congress could help him repair some of the divisions over trade during the eight years of President George W. Bush.
A friend of U.S. labor groups, Becerra voted against the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005.
CAFTA was one of the most bitter trade battles of the Bush administration, with the agreement initially clearing the House by only one vote.
Becerra also voted, along with most Democrats, earlier this year to block consideration of a free trade agreement with Colombia when Bush tried to force a vote.
But Becerra has supported other trade deals, including one Congress approved last year with Peru. He also voted in 1993, his first year in Congress, for the North American Free Trade Agreement that Obama has said he intends to reopen with Canada and Mexico to add stronger labor and environmental provisions.
Congressional Quarterly’s online publication reported on Tuesday that Becerra had been offered the trade post. Neither his office nor the Obama transition team would confirm that.
“Congressman Becerra is looking forward to serving in his newly elected post as House Democratic vice chair and is focusing his energy and efforts in the work that lies ahead for him in the 111th Congress,” a spokeswoman for Becerra said.
U.S. business and labor leaders said they could work with Becerra if he is tapped for the job.
“Looking at his voting record, he’s certainly not a protectionist and he’s certainly not a total free trader,” said Frank Vargo, vice president for international economic affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers.
“If he were selected, I would not see it as a sign the administration is throwing in the towel on trade. I believe he would have an open mind and be pragmatic.”
Vargo said he was convinced Obama and manufacturers share the same goal of expanding trade, despite some differences.
Thea Lee, policy director for the AFL-CIO labor federation, said Becerra would be an “excellent choice.”
“We haven’t agreed with him on every single trade issue but he’s always been open and honest with us and willing to talk,” Lee said.
Beyond supporting NAFTA, Becerra disappointed labor groups when he voted in 2000 in favor of establishing permanent normal trade relations with China, Lee said.
For the top job at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Gensler is a contender because he reviews the operations of the financial watchdog as part of Obama’s transition team and was under secretary for domestic finance in the Treasury during the tenure of former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers.
Summers has been tapped by Obama as the director of the White House National Economic Council.
Gensler is a former partner at Goldman Sachs and worked as a top adviser to Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes, one of the authors of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that toughened standards on corporations in response to major accounting and business scandals of the early 2000s.
Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai and Caren Bohan; Editing by John O'Callaghan