Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk won Senate confirmation Wednesday to be the nation's top trade official with responsibilities for advancing free trade at a time when many Americans see foreign competition as a threat to their livelihoods.
The Senate voted 92-5 to confirm Kirk as U.S. trade representative, setting aside a tax problem revealed after he was nominated and concerns raised by some Republicans that the Obama administration was putting the country on a path to protectionism.
Kirk, at his confirmation hearing, said he would work to expand trade but did not come to the job with "deal fever." He said he would try to help American workers hit by the negative aspects of trade and would put more effort into ensuring that trade partners aren't violating existing agreements on open trade.
That would signal a shift from the Bush administration, which championed the benefits of free trade and endeavored to negotiate new bilateral agreements.
"Many feel that our trade policy has veered off course," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., pointing out that many feel the government has not protected workers or enforced trade agreements.
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Kirk, he said, will "chart the right course" by looking out for American workers and shining a spotlight on trade violations.
On the other side, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was voting for Kirk "with some reluctance." He said that while Kirk supported international trade in a broad sense, he "has also made comments suggesting that protectionism might not be so bad after all."
McCain cited Kirk's opposition to a negotiated trade agreement with South Korea and his objections to a pending agreement with Colombia. Kirk has said that a third negotiated trade deal left over from the Bush administration, with Panama, could be ready for a congressional vote soon.
McCain took aim at a "buy American" provision in the economic stimulus bill and a provision in a just-passed spending bill killing a NAFTA program allowing Mexican trucks to operate in the United States. Such measures, he said, invite retaliation from trading partners and "send a signal to the world that America is going down a path of protectionism."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said she was confident Kirk, a fellow Texan, would resolve the trade dispute with Mexico. "He knows how important free trade is with Mexico."
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., a frequent critic of free trade agreements, said the merchandise trade deficit last year was $800 billion -- $256 billion with China alone.
"I hope this trade ambassador understands that our country stands for trade, stands for open markets, but we ought to, for a change, stand for fair trade agreements and we ought to stand for balance in trade." he said.
Kirk's nomination was momentarily in jeopardy when it was revealed that he had underpaid the IRS by some $10,000 earlier in the decade. But Baucus declared it was an honest mistake and the issue was largely overlooked.