Obama trade rep to make House debut

President Obama’s trade representative has been on the job for two years, but has never appeared at a hearing with the House panel that oversees trade.

That ends Wednesday, when Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee, frustrated over stalled U.S. trade deals with Colombia and Panama, will get their first chance to grill Ron Kirk.

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Kirk’s absence from Ways and Means has been highly unusual.

It’s typical for the president’s senior official on trade to appear at both the Senate Finance and the House Ways and Means committees at least once during the year, and Kirk hasn’t been a stranger in the Senate.

Kirk appeared twice last year before Finance, which has jurisdiction over trade in the upper chamber. Kirk offered testimony in March on the U.S. trade agenda, and in June on U.S. trade with China.

Former President George W. Bush’s last trade representative, Susan Schwab, offered testimony on the president’s trade agenda in February 2007 to Ways and Means members. But that’s the last time House panel members have heard from a U.S. trade representative, at least at a public hearing.

A spokesman for Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on Ways and Means, said Kirk met with the committee a number of times in private executive sessions, so there was no need to invite him to testify publicly.

The private meetings gave members “the opportunity to have an in-depth exchange with and provide input to the trade representative as the administration worked to change and revitalize U.S. trade policy,” the spokesman said, noting some of those changes produced results, including a modified deal with South Korea that appears to have broad support in Congress. 

“Now that the wheels have been set in motion, this is the right time for him to testify before the committee,” the spokesman said. 

Republicans pressed for Kirk to make an earlier appearance. A spokesman for Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the panel’s new chairman, said Camp attended the executive session meetings and said they were no substitute for a public hearing that would allow both sides to give and take in an open debate.

Republicans asked Levin to invite the trade representative for testimony when Democrats held the House. The spokesman said they usually were told Levin was thinking about it. 

Cal Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, said Kirk’s absence is explained by the White House’s focus on the domestic economy for the last two years.

“I think it’s reflective of the decision of the Obama administration to focus on the domestic agenda for the first two years of his term,” Cohen said.

Other business sources said Kirk’s absence illustrated the lack of interest House Democrats had in moving forward on trade, especially at a time when it could have provoked internal fights in a party trying to rally around the healthcare bill.

Kirk’s long absence sets the stage for what’s expected to be a stormy hearing on Wednesday.

While there are signs of cooperation between the White House and Republicans on trade, there are also significant differences over a controversial agreement with Colombia.

Meanwhile, liberal Democrats in the House are critical of the South Korean deal, which has the support of the GOP and many Democrats, including Levin. Obama’s legislative push on the agreement, which business and Republicans would like to see completed this summer, will start an internal fight with liberal Democrats as well as large parts of organized labor and consumer groups such as Public Citizen.

Republicans on Wednesday are expected to blast Obama for not moving more quickly on deals with Colombia and Panama that have stood in place since Bush left office.

Obama wants to double U.S. exports over the next five years, and Republicans say there’s no better way to do so than to push forward with trade deals already negotiated.

Opening new markets “provides a proven way to fuel economic growth,” Camp said in a statement announcing Wednesday’s hearing.

“An important first step is to consider all three pending trade agreements in the next six months,” which will prevent the U.S. from falling behind other countries, Camp said.

During a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Monday, Obama hailed the South Korea deal as an agreement that has the support of business and labor.

“That’s the kind of deal I’ll be looking for as we pursue trade agreements with Panama and Colombia” he said.

But Ways and Means Republicans noted that Obama offered no “concrete plans” to offer either deal to Congress, and that the language about “pursing” trade deals was confusing.

Republicans, after waiting two years to hear from Kirk, will be pressing for more specifics on Wednesday.