Ron Kirk confirmed as U.S. trade representative

The Senate on Wednesday easily confirmed former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk as the U.S. trade representative, making him the ambassador for a new, more limited Obama administration approach to free trade.

Kirk, the first African-American to hold the post, faces his first test on the U.S. border with Mexico, where the Obama administration’s cancellation of a pilot trucking program last week has prompted retaliation by Mexico, which has imposed trade tariffs on 19 U.S. goods.

Washington has resisted opening the border to Mexican trucks under the North American Free Trade Agreement because of concerns over the safety of the trucks and their drivers. The Bush administration instituted the pilot program as an interim solution.

President Barack Obama plans to visit Mexico next month, the White House said Wednesday.

Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday in support of Kirk’s nomination, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, warned of the dangers of a trade war with Mexico and said Kirk had the best experience to diffuse the standoff.

“The person who understands it best is Ron Kirk,” Hutchison said.

The Senate approved the nomination, 92-5.

Kirk’s nomination came under some scrutiny when the Senate Finance Committee discovered his failure to properly pay some federal taxes. After Kirk corrected his returns and paid $10,000, leaders of both parties said the mistake wouldn’t hurt his nomination.

Kirk takes his post as the U.S. economy is in recession. The Obama administration wants to ensure that workers are buffered from the impact of trade agreements, offering such benefits as a beefed-up retraining and trade impact compensation program.

“It is true that cheaper foreign products help squeezed American families stretch their dollars, and the sale of our goods and services abroad support American jobs,” Kirk said at his confirmation hearing last week before the Senate Finance Committee. “But it is also true that the overarching benefits of trade are difficult to appreciate when a plant closes in a small community because of increased foreign competition.”

There are three free-trade pacts pending before Congress – Panama, Colombia and South Korea – but Kirk made clear that he’s going to review the negotiated deals before moving on them, giving a special emphasis to labor and environment protections.

Joseph McKinney, professor of international economics at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and a supporter of free trade, said, “President Obama is more sensitive to labor and environmental issues and more beholden to those interests. He’s going to take a more cautious approach to trade agreements.”

Copyright 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.