The White House’s free trade negotiations with South Korea, Colombia and Panama are about to look like a piece of cake, compared to the work ahead to get House Democrats to agree on the details.
Already Republicans are on board, another show of President Barack Obama’s ability to work with the GOP while irking his party’s liberal base.
After the White House on Monday announced that it had reached agreement with Panama, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said that he was prepared to move quickly on all three deals. “U.S. job creators and workers are every day put at a disadvantage to foreign competitors from countries that have already concluded trade agreements without us. The more we delay, the more we lose. The time to act is now.”
But Camps’ Democratic counterparts aren’t so warm to his haste. As in past trade votes, members of the more-liberal wing of the Democratic Party appear ready to side with organized-labor and human rights advocates, groups Obama will no doubt look to for support in 2012. It’s an awkward position for Obama as the trade debate unfolds toward a bipartisan agreement expected this summer.
“There is a reason the agreements didn’t move forward with the previous administration,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said of the then-Democratic-controlled House, at a Wednesday press breakfast hosted by the centrist group Third Way. “We did bring people back to the table and addressed some of the concerns of labor.” Trade observers in both parties have said that new White House chief of staff Bill Daley—who has had strong connections to the business community—has pushed for quicker action.
Although Kirk conceded the GOP’s persistence in pushing the three agreements since taking House control, he added that they didn’t affect the White House’s broader strategy—either on substance or timing. “Republicans came in and said send [the agreements] out. We said no,” until additional changes were made.
Still, much of organized labor and its closest Hill allies remain staunchly opposed—a source of discomfort for Obama as he prepares for reelection. With unemployment close to nine percent, many Democrats believe that reduced trade barriers are a bad message to beleaguered workers.
For Democratic critics, the Colombia deal has raised the strongest opposition because of continuing concern over physical attacks and threats to union leaders. “I am appalled that the administration is putting forward this action plan as the answer to Colombia’s rampant human rights and labor rights violations,” said Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), who chairs the House Trade Working Group.
A larger group of liberal Democrats—including close Pelosi allies George Miller (D-Calif.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.)—last month demanded assurances from Obama that “Colombia’s long track record of repression, violence and murder of labor unionists has truly changed.” Obama subsequently hosted Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos at a cordial White House meeting to promote the trade agreement.
Even stronger criticism of all three trade deals has come from Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, which is backed by large labor unions. At a Ways and Means Committee hearing, the group’s leaders called for more sweeping clean-up of Panama’s bank secrecy practices and tax-haven practices, and cast doubt on Administration claims that the South Korean deal would yield 70,000 U.S. jobs.
Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), now the ranking Ways and Means Committee Democrat, has long sought to bridge the differences within his party. In a comment to POLITICO, he embraced the Administration efforts. “While Republicans have been sitting on the sidelines willing to accept seriously flawed trade agreements, Democrats have been working to fix trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration and when each is fixed and considered separately on its merits there will be a broader base of Democratic support.”
With Camp, Levin helped to resolve final details of the South Korean agreement, including steps to assure the vital support of their home-state’s automobile industry. But he has continued to withhold support for the Colombia deal, and said that “additional work needs to be done.”
Not coincidentally, mostly unified Republicans and their corporate allies have aggressively pushed for a bold trade agenda. And they have been more successful than might have been expected early this year, given the hesitation and reservations among Democrats. When Speaker John Boehner had his first formal meeting with the president, he urged him to focus on the trade deals.
With Camp’s continued push, the House and Senate tax-writing committees will work this spring on the often complex trade details under the unusual review procedures that have been used for trade agreements. Although House GOP leaders have remained intent on moving the agreements as a single package, Kirk said that congressional rules make that approach a non-starter; he added that the timing remained under discussion with leaders of the House and Senate tax committees.
Democrats also plan some sweeteners for their labor allies, including revival of trade-adjustment assistance for unemployed workers. Although final action may extend beyond the July 1 timetable that Camp has urged, the overall package seems likely to be completed by the August recess.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has emerged as the most enthusiastic House Democratic backer of the trade deals. In a statement Monday, he said that with Kirk’s announcement of agreement with Panama, “I look forward to working with the administration to move all three outstanding trade agreements.”
On his return from a trip this week to Colombia with Camp, Hoyer drew the line with Democratic skeptics on a deal with that nation. “Colombia is a critical ally to the United States, and I strongly believe it is in our economic and national security interests to strengthen our ties by moving the Agreement forward.”
That support has been echoed by two influential Senate committee chairmen: Max Baucus (D-Mont.) at Finance, and John Kerry (D-Mass.) at Foreign Relations—a sign of the expected easy Senate approval. They have become vocal advocates of the three agreements, and coauthored this month an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that headlined the Colombia deal, “a different kind of jobs bill.”
The largely unified Republicans note, in particular, a letter to Obama from 67 GOP freshmen urging approval of the trade deals. The letter, which Ways and Means freshman Rick Berg (R-N.D.) helped to organize, marked one of their rare reaches across the aisle.
In Washington’s politically toxic environment, some trade-deal backers hope that the bipartisan support could open the door to other cooperation. “Chairman Camp has had positive discussion with the White House and the agencies on resolving the trade agreements. Hopefully, that working relationship will have a positive impact on other issues,” said Sage Eastman, Ways and Means deputy staff director. Still, the cooperation clearly has its limits in Congress.