Trade Deals Find Momentum in Congress

Free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama – long delayed by an impasse between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans – finally are ready to move through Congress, with votes likely to come before Congress leaves for its August recess.

Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Orin Hatch (R-Utah) stated the panel will begin its work on the three key trade deals as well as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) funds for displaced workers beginning with a mock mark-up on Thursday.

Progress on the three pacts had been stalled since May, when the White House announced that it would not submit the deals for approval unless Congress agreed to move forward on a program to aid workers who lost their jobs due to outsourcing.

Hatch said that congressional negotiators have worked out a compromise that will include the renewal of expired trade programs including Trade Adjustment Assistance, the Generalized System of Preferences and the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act.

The TAA deal would allow for a renewal of retraining assistance for American workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition. Republicans had objected to renewing the TAA program, arguing that it would do little to spur job creation and that it was not worth the cost at a time of record debt. The TAA will be included in legislation on the coveted trade deal with South Korea and the two other trade programs will be attached to the Colombia free trade agreement.

The assistance program was expanded two years ago as part of Obama’s stimulus package to include aid for more displaced workers, but the expansion expired in February. Labor unions and some key Democratic lawmakers have demanded the expansion as a condition for supporting the trade deals.

The three trade deals were first negotiated under President George W. Bush in 2007. But the then-Democratic-led Congress never brought the agreements up for vote, giving the Obama administration time to renegotiate areas it found objectionable, including those elements related to labor and environmental rights.

President Obama frequently cites the three trade pacts as deals that would give a boost to the U.S. economy, in part by making overseas markets more widely available to American companies.

Two members instrumental in striking the deal to end the stalemate were House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

“These free trade agreements, together with Trade Adjustment Assistance, will boost our economy by billions of dollars and create new jobs and opportunities here at home,” Baucus said. “This proposal opens lucrative new markets to American ranchers, farmers and small businesses while ensuring U.S. workers have all the help they need to adapt and thrive in the 21st century global economy.”

This breakthrough paves the way for the Obama administration to submit the three agreements to Congress, formally beginning the process of ratifying the largest package of free trade agreements since Congress passed NAFTA in 1993. However, if the trade deals don’t get through Congress before its August recess, they may be doomed. The closer it gets to the 2012 elections, the less likely Democrats are to support the agreements.