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Trade Deal Votes to Divide Democrats

by Mike Lillis

Congress is poised to pass trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia on Wednesday in a series of votes that will divide House Democrats. 

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said the FTAs will “facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs overseas and fail to adequately protect the environment.” (File) House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday predicted that the trade agreements would garner support from many Democrats, despite strong opposition from some in the caucus.

"I don’t know what the numbers are — we’re not whipping these bills, per se — but I do expect them to pass with bipartisan support,” said Hoyer, who supports all three bills.

The House on Tuesday approved the rule governing the three proposals, while the Senate Finance Committee also cleared the bills for floor consideration. Both chambers are expected to vote on the measures Wednesday, and President Obama has said he’ll sign them when they hit his desk.

The trade agreements, which were first negotiated during the George W. Bush administration, have languished for years over concerns that they will hurt American workers and kill jobs.

The deals were supposed to be dispensed with earlier this year, but votes were delayed as White House and congressional leaders jousted over the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, a decades-old initiative providing health insurance, retraining and other help to U.S. workers negatively affected by free-trade agreements, or FTAs.

An extension of TAA benefits is expected to pass Wednesday along with the trade deals.

But it won’t happen without a fight. Many liberal Democrats have argued for years that the trade pacts will benefit multinational corporations at the expense of U.S. workers. And on the eve of the votes, most of those concerns haven’t been alleviated simply because a Democrat has taken residence in the White House.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said the FTAs will “facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs overseas and fail to adequately protect the environment.” 

Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) has warned the deals “will undermine U.S. manufacturing at a time when we need to rebuild it.”

And Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said the agreements would lead to “phenomenal job creation — the only problem is the jobs are being created in foreign nations.”

Many liberals are also concerned the bills don’t go far enough to protect workers overseas, particularly in Colombia. 

Late last month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka urged the president to reconsider his support for the Colombia deal due to that country’s history of anti-union violence. He attached to the letter the names of 22 union leaders who have been killed in Colombia’s labor wars.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calf.), an outspoken critic of the FTAs, has signaled in recent months that she remains concerned about the impact of the deals. Still, the California liberal has declined to say how she’ll vote Wednesday. 

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and a fierce critic of the FTAs, said the wildcard Wednesday wouldn’t be Democrats, but freshman Republicans, many of whom campaigned against trade agreements that subject the U.S. to international trade rules. 

The fate of the South Korea deal, she said, hinges on “whether the freshman Republicans vote like they campaigned, or vote like the big-business lobbyists want them to.”

Failure of the Korea deal would be a huge embarrassment for Congress and the Obama administration, since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is expected to address a joint session of Congress before being feted at a state dinner at the White House.

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