US Trade Representative Ron Kirk to step down, successors eyed

Ron Kirk

The source familiar with the matter said Hochberg, the Ex-Im president, Jeffrey Zients, a deputy director of the White House budget office, and Elizabeth Littlefield, president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, were all under consideration for the Commerce position.

Xerox chief executive Ursula Burns, who is vice chair of Obama's export council, was also being considered, and there was an ongoing search for business leaders outside the administration for the role, the source said.

Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank is "acting" head of the sprawling department, and some industry officials think she may be chosen to fill the job permanently.

CHINA TRADE TENSIONS

Kirk's tenure was marked by increased confrontation with China over trade issues, with the United States challenging Chinese policies that discriminate against American exports in areas ranging from wind power to autos.

Kirk overcame initial White House resistance to relaunching talks on a regional free-trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which many experts consider the most significant trade negotiation now under way.

"It's very hard to pursue an activist international agenda when there's so much churning in the domestic economy. To his credit, he has maintained an open US trade policy at a time of great stress," said Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Ed Gresser, trade policy director at GlobalWorks Foundation, said Kirk helped restore support for trade in Congress after bitter fights between Republicans and Democrats during President George W. Bush's administration.

"There's a steadily strengthening consensus in Congress that trade policy needs to be a part of the solution to our (economic) crisis and we need to be passing more trade bills and negotiating more agreements," Gresser said.

Kirk, a former Texas secretary of state, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2001 but has downplayed chances that he might run for office again. He has joked with reporters about his desire instead to earn more money to pay for his two daughters' college bills.

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