WASHINGTON -- Rep. Xavier Becerra on Tuesday withdrew his name from consideration to serve as U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's chief trade negotiator, saying he planned to remain in the House of Representatives.
Becerra, who was recently elected vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said he wanted to devoted his energy to that new post and to serving as a senior of the House Ways and Means Committee, one of Congress' most powerful panels.
"I ... now see a rare opportunity to push across the goal line much of the unfinished business of America: investing in our infrastructure and workers, universal healthcare, comprehensive immigration reform and scrubbing a tax code that's out of shape and behind the times," Becerra said in a statement. He was first elected to Congress from California in 1992.
Becerra emerged as a surprise leading candidate for the job of U.S. trade representative just two weeks ago and he subsequently flew to Chicago to meet with Obama.
He had support of union officials for standing with them in opposition of a free trade agreement with Central American countries on the grounds it did not have strong enough labor and environmental provisions.
However, business groups had also been optimistic about working with Becerra if he were chosen because of his past support for other trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement and permanent normal trade relations with China.
With Becerra's name now out of the mix, the list of possible candidates for USTR includes Dan Tarullo, a Georgetown University law professor and former White House official who advised Obama during the campaign.
But many say they think Tarullo would rather be Treasury undersecretary for international economic affairs.
Others seen as possible candidates are former Rep. Harold Ford, a Tennessee Democrat who now heads the Democratic Leadership Council, and Ron Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas who has acknowledged having talks with the Obama transition team about taking a job in the new administration.
Business groups had hoped Obama would make an announcement by Christmas, but that may now have been pushed back.
Even before Becerra withdrew, a leading business official admitted his group had not been able to glean any hard information about who would Obama would tap to be U.S. trade representative, which is often one of the last posts to be filled in any administration.
"I have no idea who that's going to be," Daniel Christman, senior vice president of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told reporters in a briefing on the group's 2009 trade priorities.
Obama's trade and Commerce Department transition teams revealed few details of the president-elect's plans for trade in 2009 when they met with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"The conversations were deep and extensive, but they were principally focused on listening to our views," Christman said.
Many expect trade to be pushed to the backburner as Obama and Congress focus on stimulus measures to dig the United States out of a deep recession.
Obama promised during the campaign to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement to add stronger labor and environmental provisions, raising fears in the business community about potentially open-ended negotiations that could unravel or weaken the 14-year-old trade pact.
Obama also opposed approval of free trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea, putting him at odds with the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.
Despite such differences, Christman said he was optimistic the business group could find common ground with the Obama administration on trade.
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