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Ron Kirk says U.S. Congress primed for more trade deals

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk came into office four years ago, he famously said he did not have a "fever" to negotiate trade deals. But with just a few days left on the job, he sounds like he caught one.

Fresh off a weekend round of golf with his friend President Barack Obama and Tiger Woods, Kirk sounded wistful about leaving when there is hard work to do to finish talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-led free trade pact with 10 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

"If I had one regret about the timing of my leaving is that I would love to be here to work through that," Kirk said in an interview with Reuters that was conducted on Wednesday. Obama has not yet chosen his replacement.

In coming months, the United States and the 27-nation European Union will also launch talks on a free trade agreement covering half the world's economic output.

Unlike four years ago, when there was skepticism about how hard the new president and his team would push for trade deals, "there's not many people questioning anymore whether we can get (them) passed," Kirk said.

The former Dallas mayor, who plans to return to his home in Texas, also said he saw a glimmer of hope for a World Trade Organization deal this year aimed at helping developing countries expand trade by easing customs barriers.

"My consistent message to my partners in Geneva, since the president and I are both basketball fans, is we've got to show we can put some points on the board," Kirk said.

Kirk refused to call the failure to win a broader deal under the Doha round of world trade talks a disappointment, even though a pact to reduce customs-clearing delays would be a big step down from the original goal of boosting poor country exports by opening new markets in rich countries for their farm and manufactured goods.

Kirk said it was possible a trade facilitation could be struck by the time of the World Trade Organization's next ministerial meeting in December. "I think we are in a better position now to be able to move forward on the developmental promise of Doha than we were when we came into office," he said.

WITHSTANDING 'THE ARROWS'

For business groups that grew accustomed to a string of free trade deals during the administration of former President George W. Bush, the first two years of the Obama administration were a frustrating slog with already completed trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea stuck on a White House shelf.

At his confirmation hearing in March 2009, Kirk spoke words that seemed odd coming from the future chief U.S. trade negotiator: "I don't come to this job with deal fever, and we're not going to do deals just for the sake of doing so."

Pressed by Republicans for a timetable on taking up the three stalled pacts left over from the Bush administration, Kirk demurred and said his priority would be enforcing the rules of existing deals.

"What I'm most proud of is having the fortitude to withstand all the arrows the first 18 months," when the administration was pilloried by many Republicans and some media for failing to move forward on the deals, Kirk said on Wednesday.

Obama finally submitted the three Bush-era deals to Congress in October 2011 after renegotiating parts of the South Korea agreement to resolve concerns raised by U.S. automakers and striking side deals with Colombia and Panama to address labor and tax issues raised by Democrats.

All three were approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives in less than 10 days, along with renewal of trade benefits for developing countries and a program to help retrain workers who have lost their jobs because of imports.

That began a string of bipartisan votes for trade legislation, including renewal of the Export-Import Bank's charter and approval of permanent normal trade relations with Russia to ensure U.S. companies would share in all the benefits of Moscow's entry to the WTO last year.

"We've built, I think, a newer, smarter, better coalition for .... trade agreements in Congress than we've ever had before," Kirk said.

One of Kirk's perks over the past four years has been golfing with Obama, including the outing last weekend with Woods and another recently with former President Bill Clinton.

Kirk showed his usual good humor when asked how he felt playing against Woods, the world's No. 2 golfer.

"I wasn't as nervous as I thought I would be. I was just bad because I was bad," Kirk said.

"But as I told a bunch of my friends back in Dallas: 'you know, taking crap from you all is nothing. Tiger Woods made fun of my golf swing ... Any jerk can make fun of your golf swing, but I've been heckled by Tiger Woods.'"

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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