WASHINGTON — After a two-year pause on trade, the Obama administration informed congressional leaders Wednesday that it's ready to negotiate legislation to implement free-trade agreements already reached with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
In separate letters to the chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, which oversee trade treaties, the administration said that it had addressed congressional concerns in direct talks with Colombia and was ready to proceed with the deals.
The administration expects to provide Congress with working drafts on Thursday of implementing language and commitments for administrative actions, senior White House officials said. The feedback Congress provides on these drafts will lead to formal legislation that the administration must eventually submit to Congress for up-or-down votes without amendments.
"We hope our discussions to review these documents, and similar documents for the Korea and Panama agreements, can commence without delay so that we can work together to bring the benefits of this agreement home to American businesses, farmers, ranchers and workers," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk wrote to the chairmen.
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Deals reached last year with South Korea and this year with Panama have languished as Kirk secured a series of "milestones" that Colombia had to commit to in order for a deal to go forward. These include hiring more labor inspectors and reforming its criminal code to impose penalties on companies that interfere with labor's efforts to organize and bargain collectively.
Colombia must meet other commitments by June 15. The action plan allows Congress to pass a trade pact whose actual implementation could be delayed until conditions are met.
Several key lawmakers committed Wednesday to move the trade deals quickly, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., whose job it is to round up votes from his party.
"The great news is that these negotiations are going to be about relatively minor questions of staging and sequence. When you have Speaker Boehner, Democratic Whip Hoyer and the White House all singing from the same song sheet, it gets your attention," John Murphy, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president for international policy, said in an interview. "We're optimistic that there is a grand bargain ... that we could see enacted in the next few weeks."
Murphy referred not only to passage of the three trade deals, but also the continuation of the Andean Trade Preferences Act, which gives preferential access to the U.S. market to Colombia and Ecuador, and the Generalized System of Preferences, which grants favored market access to poorer nations. A third leg of the grand bargain involves providing trade adjustment assistance to help U.S. workers displaced by international trade.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, then Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was cool to new trade agreements, a nod to unions that say foreign manufacturers gain from them at the expense of U.S. workers. After taking office, President Barack Obama effectively adopted the pause on trade promised by his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, now secretary of state.
For two years, business groups have clamored for action on trade deals, arguing that Europe, Canada and others are moving ahead with Colombia to the disadvantage of U.S. exporters.
"I think the Obama administration has been trying to find a way forward for some time. It was over a year ago when the president set a goal of doubling exports within five years," noted Murphy, adding that "if you stand still you are handing our competitors a huge competitive advantage."
The South Korea deal would provide the biggest potential jobs boost. The White House estimates it could create 70,000 U.S. jobs.
The two nations agreed earlier on greater market access for U.S. carmakers and beef exports. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., in a statement Wednesday, pointed to new commitments he won from the administration in exchange for his support.
The Department of Agriculture agreed to more funding to market U.S. beef exports in Korea, he said, and Kirk, the trade representative, agreed to request consultations with Korea as soon as the pact takes effect to discuss the beef about beef.
"This funding will help educate and increase confidence among Korean consumers about the safety and quality of U.S. beef, and these consultations will provide an opportunity for the two governments to discuss full application of the beef protocol, leading us toward increased U.S. beef exports that help support jobs here at home," Baucus said.
The U.S. Business and Industry Council, made up of U.S. companies harmed by global trade, accused Washington of a sell-out.
"As of 2009, Colombia represented a total market slightly smaller than that of greater Miami and Atlanta, and slightly smaller than greater Seattle," said research fellow Alan Tonelson, arguing that Colombia unfairly subsidizes its exports. "How will this kind of trade expansion spur growth and employment in the United States?"
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