By Kevin Bogardus - 06/24/11 09:15 AM EDT
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk is in for a very busy summer as the Obama administration’s top trade official.
The trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that he has been working on for more than two years are finally close to being submitted to Capitol Hill for approval, with floor votes expected possibly in July.
“I just think it would be a huge missed opportunity for us, as a country, to not reap the economic benefits and the job-creating potential of these three free-trade agreements, frankly, over partisan politics,” Kirk told The Hill.
Kirk said that while it’s important to open up new markets for American goods and services, it’s also important to make sure workers aren’t left behind. He said TAA funds are critical for job training programs and healthcare benefits for people who are affected by trade.
“We think our trade policy has to reflect our core values,” Kirk said. “Core to our values … is this commitment to workers who, for whatever reason, come out on the losing side of trade.”
Since his time as Dallas mayor, beginning in the 1990s, Kirk has been known as a committed trade advocate with admirers on both sides of the aisle. He helped win concessions from Korea last year when President Obama reworked the trade deal with the country, changes that won the support of Ford and the United Auto Workers.
“Ambassador Kirk was a driving force in ensuring a fair deal was achieved on autos for American workers during the negotiations with South Korea,” said Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in a statement. “He is someone I always look forward to working with — he is honest, smart and pragmatic.”
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement that Kirk has been “a crucial ally in our efforts to pass a bold and balanced trade agenda that creates jobs and opportunities for American workers and small businesses.”
Kirk has known Obama for about a decade. He said he first met the president at a Chicago fundraiser during his unsuccessful 2002 run for a Senate seat in Texas.
After the fundraiser ended, Kirk said he rode in the elevator with Obama, then an Illinois state senator, and some of his friends. He was asked whether he had any words of advice for Obama, who was planning to run for the U.S. Senate in 2004.
“My first words of advice to him were, ‘Change your name,’ ” Kirk said.
The two stayed in touch throughout the years, even sharing campaign aides, including Robert Gibbs, who would later become Obama’s White House press secretary.
That friendship has turned the president and the trade representative into frequent golf partners — Kirk is among a select crew hitting the links with the president on weekends.
“One of the reasons I think he invites me back is we deliberately try to talk about anything other than politics,” Kirk said. “It’s a lot of trash-talking. If I had my way, it would be full-contact golf.”
Obama is depending on Kirk to help him get the trade deals through Congress. The trade representative said he believes if the administration can secure a deal on renewing the trade aid program, then the votes for the three pending trade deals will fall into place.
“This is Washington, so all confidence is relative,” Kirk said. “If we can get them to the floor, we can get them passed.”
Though Kirk was able to win support from some unions for the Korea deal, he has not had the same success with the Colombia agreement. The AFL-CIO and others are campaigning hard against the trade deal, partly because of the deaths of union members in that country.
Kirk helped craft a labor action plan for Colombia to improve the country’s poor record combating violence against trade unionists. Kirk said he was not surprised that unions were still opposed to the trade deal despite the action plan, but said he’s pleased the administration brought labor back to the table when it came to trade agreements.
“Having grown up a mayor, I understand that the greatest benefit of a functioning democracy is that everyone has a voice. That does not translate to everybody getting everything they want but at some point — you can’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” Kirk said.
Republicans also have not been happy with the administration’s trade agenda at times, though for different reasons. Some GOP lawmakers have said that if the White House wants a renewal of TAA, it should also renew the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which would give the president the ability to fast-track trade deals on Capitol Hill in less than 90 days.
Kirk said the administration does want to renew the authority, but wants to push through the three pending trade deals first. Now is not the time to renew TPA because Congress usually takes months on reauthorizing the program, according to Kirk.
“We absolutely want to engage Congress in a conversation,” Kirk said, but the administration is worried that beginning that debate now “will unnecessarily delay” approval of the trade agreements and TAA.
Kirk said he is focused on moving the three trade deals, along with the trade aid program, through Congress as soon as possible. He said he’s not looking to jump into a Senate race, though there is an open seat up for grabs in Texas next year.
Kirk said he was sure that the president will be reelected to a second term, but that it would be up to Obama if he were to stay on as the U.S. Trade Representative.
“The decision, first of all, as to whether I would be in a second term, is a call to be made by the president,” Kirk said.
One thing that won’t change after the 2012 election is Kirk’s support of the Dallas Mavericks. Having held season tickets for the basketball team for 28 years, Kirk was happy to discuss their stellar season as he gripped his Mavericks championship cap in his hands.
Many predicted the Miami Heat’s victory in the NBA finals, including the president, but Kirk said he has avoided gloating about his team’s upset win.
“Texans, by our nature, are a humble people. As we like to say, ‘if you’ve done it, it ain’t bragging,’ ” Kirk said. He said he’s looking forward to a potential repeat next year.
“I certainly like our chances to advance to the finals, and we will see what happens,” Kirk said.