Senate GOP to WH: No Trade Pacts, No Commerce Nominee

Before President Obama's choice to head the Commerce Department could even get the official nod Tuesday, a Senate GOP leadership aide reminded that nearly the entire conference announced, back in March, that any Commerce Department nominee would face a blockade of 44 Republicans until the Administration sends up two Bush-era free trade pacts for Congressional approval.

In a letter from nearly the entire Senate GOP conference to Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on March 14, the lawmakers called both the Panama and Colombia free trade agreements crucial to America's economic recovery and state, "(U)ntil the President submits both agreements to Congress for approval and commits to signing implementing legislation into law, we will use all the tools at our disposal to force action, including withholding support from any nominee for Commerce Secretary and any trade-related nominees."

Obama on Tuesday tapped the 67-year old former head of the energy company Edison International, John Bryson, who also co-founded the environmental group National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The trade deals were hammered out three years ago, a delay the GOP group called "unnecessary and inexcusable."

But a spokesman for the Senate Democratic caucus, Brian Fallon, said, "Republicans threatening to hold up action in the Senate is about as dog-bites-man as it gets."

At the heart of the delay is a dispute over worker rights. The White House and congressional Democrats have said the agreements must be tied to a renewal of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program which provides benefits to workers displaced by rising imports.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., whose panel is responsible for moving the trade pacts, recently said both FTA's must pass in tandem with TAA, "otherwise nothing passes. It's all or nothing."

The Administration and its congressional allies want to seal the trade agreements with TAA, so that the worker benefits package enjoys the same procedural fast track privileges. Trade deals, under fast-track procedures, cannot be filibustered and must receive straight up-or-down votes within 90 days of the president sending up implementing legislation.

"The time for delay is over," the letter says. "Colombia and Panama are strong democratic allies in Latin America and both have undertaken serious and meaningful reforms, many of which directly address the concerns of those who want to further delay these agreements. Yet the administration continues to move the goalpost by withholding clear direction and not providing a specific timetable for implementation."

Baucus' GOP counterpart, Orrin Hatch of Utah, recently said the spat "looks like just a payoff to the unions."

Three Republicans did not sign the letter: Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.