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Key Obama Trade Officials Approved

James A. Morrissey, Washington Correspondent

Two of President Barack Obama's top cabinet nominees who will be heavily involved in international trade policies - secretary of Commerce and US trade representative (USTR) - have won Congressional approval.

The full Senate overwhelmingly approved the nomination of Ron Kirk  to serve as the nation's 16th USTR. In that capacity, he will be the president's main trade advisor, chief negotiator of trade agreements and spokesman on trade issues. Following his confirmation, the office of the USTR issued a statement saying said Kirk has "earned a reputation for bringing together diverse coalitions to achieve results."

In his appearance before the Senate Finance Committee, Kirk said he will work to see that the United States continues to be a leader in advancing a rules-based international trade system, and he reaffirmed the administration's commitment to seek multilateral cooperation on trade issues, including enforcement of existing agreements and negotiation of new ones where appropriate, although he said he does not come to the job with "deal fever." He promised a new dialogue and greater consultation with Congress on trade issues "early and often."

Among his priorities, he said, is expanded use of adjustment assistance to help workers who lose their jobs as a result of import competition.

Kirk also said the United States is committed to work for a successful conclusion of the Doha Round of trade liberalization negotiations, enforcement of the free trade agreements in which the United States is a partner and negotiation of new agreements where appropriate.

One of his first acts was to sign onto a joint statement with European Union Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton promising to refrain from raising new barriers to investment, trade and services. They said: "At a time when the temptation to turn inward and away from the rules-based system may be stronger than it has been in decades, we agree that the United States and the EU must lead by example, turning outward more intelligently to continue to strengthen the trading system and create new market opportunities."

In a related development, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has approved the nomination of Gary Locke, former Washington state governor, to serve as secretary of Commerce. The Department of Commerce plays a major role in developing and carrying out the administration's trade agenda, and the department includes the Office of Textiles and Apparel, which is responsible for helping with negotiations and for the day-to day administration of existing trade agreements.

At his confirmation hearing, Locke said his first priority is protection of intellectual property rights; and he, like Kirk, stressed the importance of enforcing existing agreements over negotiating new ones. He said it is "pointless to negotiate new agreements if we don't intend to enforce them."

Asked about the trade deficit with China, Locke said the United States cannot continue to have such a large deficit with a single country. As governor, Locke, a Chinese American, made several trips to China to promote trade, and he has ties with a number of Chinese government officials including President Hu Jintao.

Locke's appointment still has to get full Senate approval, but there do not appear to be any stumbling blocks in the way of his confirmation.

March 24, 2009