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US Senate Confirms Trade Representative

The U.S. Senate Wednesday voted 92 to 5 to confirm Ron Kirk as U.S. Trade Representative. Kirk, who becomes the first African American to hold the post, has vowed to pursue new trade deals but also work to ensure that U.S. trading partners are not violating existing trade agreements.

The Senate vote came after little debate on the nomination.

Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat and frequent critic of free trade accords, said he hoped Ron Kirk would work for fair trade, and noted that the U.S. trade deficit last year totaled $800 billion.

"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, and get rid of an $800 billion a year deficit in which we end up owing other countries a substantial amount of our future," Senator Dorgan said.

At his confirmation hearing last week, Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, Texas, pledged to make sure other countries live up to commitments they have made under existing trade agreements.

Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who lost his presidential bid to Barack Obama last November, said he was reluctantly voting to confirm Kirk. He said he had reservations about the Obama administration's trade policies, and said he was concerned about provisions in recently-passed bills requiring the government to use U.S. steel for certain projects and ending a program to allow Mexican trucks to operate in the United States.

"I remain very concerned about the direction of our trade policies at a time of economic peril," he said.

But fellow Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Kirk's home state of Texas had no such reservations about confirming the nominee.

"He will make a great U.S. Trade Representative," she said. "He will seek exports of American goods all over the world. He will seek free and fair trade."

Hutchison said Kirk would face a series of challenges in his new post, including revitalizing stalled world trade talks and seeking congressional approval of free trade agreements with Panama, South Korea and Colombia - all negotiated by the previous administration of President George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a confirmation hearing for President Obama's nominee to head the Commerce Department, former Democratic Governor Gary Locke of Washington State.

Locke vowed that if confirmed, he would insist on tough enforcement of U.S. trade laws, and develop an aggressive program to create and protect American jobs.

"We must rebuild, retool and reinvent our national strategies for sustained economic growth," he said.

Senator Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat, praised Locke's qualifications for the job.

"As the two-term governor of the nation's most trade-dependent state, he spent eight years breaking down trade barriers and promoting American products from airplanes to apples to operating systems," she said. "He has led numerous successful delegations to our Asian trading partners to foster those relationships. The experience and relationships he built over the years will serve him well as he works to promote American products and American technology to a global market."

Locke, if confirmed, would become the first Chinese-American commerce secretary. Locke told the hearing his grandfather moved from China to Washington State a century ago to work as a houseboy.

Locke - who is expected to be easily confirmed - was President Obama's third choice for commerce secretary after New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire withdrew their nominations.