WASHINGTON — Rep. Xavier Becerra said Wednesday that he turned down the position of U.S. trade representative in the incoming administration because the job will not be at the center of the action during a time of more pressing economic concerns.
The highest-profile candidate to decline a job offer from President-elect Barack Obama, the Los Angeles Democrat said he thinks he can have more influence as a ranking member of Congress than as the lead advisor on trade agreements.
"I don't see how it can be the front-burner issue for him, nor should it be, quite honestly," Becerra said in an interview with Los Angeles public radio. "Clearly the priority for this president, and I think he said it very well, will be economic recovery and jobs."
Becerra's announcement that he wouldn't take the job, released Tuesday, ended several weeks of conversation between him and the Obama team about becoming the nation's chief trade negotiator.
Sources close to the talks say Becerra had been going back and forth over whether he wanted the job, and the talks were further complicated by news reports about Becerra's support of clemency for a convicted California drug dealer in 2001.
But Republicans had not really begun to push back against Becerra. They're working furiously to vet the high-level appointees Obama has officially named as top Senate Democrats plan confirmation hearings for early January. Members of Obama's national security and economic teams could even be confirmed the day of his Jan. 20 swearing-in.
The confirmation process for other nominees is likely to be more drawn out, including that for attorney general nominee Eric H. Holder Jr., who is under scrutiny for his role in clemency and pardon decisions at the end of the Clinton administration.
Becerra was among a number of California political leaders who pressed President Clinton to consider commuting the prison term of Carlos Vignali, convicted in 1994 for his role in a cocaine drug ring. He was released from prison after serving less than half of his sentence.
The driving force behind the commutation campaign was Vignali's father, Horacio, a Los Angeles businessman and developer who gave money to Becerra's political campaigns and those of other California lawmakers.
Becerra's involvement in the commutation didn't take him out of the running for the trade job. Still, when he said Tuesday that he would take himself out of consideration, his decision was met with quiet acceptance in Obama's quarters.
Becerra declined to comment, and an aide directed reporters to the interview Wednesday with KPCC-FM.
In it, Becerra disputed reports that he had dropped out of the running because he didn't think Obama placed a high priority on trade.
"When I talked about the agenda that President-elect Obama would face, I mentioned that there were many, many priorities," Becerra said, citing healthcare, Iraq, Afghanistan and the financial crisis among them.
"In there will be trade," he said. "For my thinking, I'm going to get to be involved in every one of those issues if I am in Congress as the No. 5 leader in the House. I could focus on trade, but I wouldn't get to deal with all those the way I would in Congress."
Labor and business leaders agreed with his assessment.
"Think about what's going to be up," said Scott N. Paul, a former lobbyist for the AFL-CIO who now is executive director of the labor-management group Alliance for American Manufacturing. "Economic stimulus. Healthcare reform. Dealing with clean energy. There's going to be a lot of things they have to plow through."
"There aren't really a lot of ripe trade agreements anyway," Paul said. "By default, these other agenda items are going to be the focus."
Tom Hamburger of our Washington bureau contributed to this report.