Lawmakers press administration on trade deals

Senators on Wednesday warned the Obama administration that Congress will not act on a pending free trade agreement with South Korea until it completes action on similar accords with Colombia and Panama.

Republicans led the criticism at a Finance Committee hearing with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, with the top GOP panelist, Orrin Hatch of Utah, charging that the administration was showing "a lack of political will and a lack of political courage" in not sending the Colombia and Panama deals to Congress for ratification.

He said that if the administration submits the Korea agreement to Congress without the other two, "I will do everything I can to make sure that these two agreements are considered at the same time."

The Democratic chairman of the committee, Max Baucus of Montana, was equally blunt. "The time is past to ratify the Colombia free trade agreement," said Baucus, just back from a trip to Colombia. "It's clear to me that none of these agreements are going to pass unless they are all packaged."

All three agreements were signed during the George W. Bush presidency, but Obama has put off sending them to Congress for ratification while the administration irons out issues such as South Korea's restrictions on U.S. auto and beef imports and Colombia's record of violence against labor leaders.

The administration says the South Korea deal is now ready, but it needs a little more time with the other two. "We believe we can wrap up our negotiations with them quickly," Kirk said, telling the committee that he was encouraged by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' commitment to improving labor rights and said that there were only a few issues remaining with Panama, all now being considered by Panama's parliament.

"We're pushing on an open door," he said, adding that there were "core issues that we won't compromise on," including labor rights.

That didn't satisfy Hatch: "I've never seen such a foot-dragging situation," he said, suggesting the administration was being too deferential to its allies in organized labor, who generally are critical of free trade agreements.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, said the administration "has no excuse for failing to act" on the three agreements. "The reason for inaction is stunning," he said. "Union bosses don't want to see them passed."

Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means panel that oversees trade, in a letter to Kirk this week also urged the administration to advance all three accords. "I strongly believe that all three agreements should be considered by Congress by July 1," he wrote.

Kirk did win some support from several Senate Finance Committee Democrats: Maria Cantwell of Washington said Colombia needed to do more to protect judicial officers from violence and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan praised the administration for delaying action on South Korea until the Seoul government committed to opening up its auto market.

Kirk said the "wiser course of action" for Congress was to move first on Korea because that deal was ready and the United States could not afford to put off the economic benefits of the proposed pact. It's estimated that the agreement will increase U.S. exports by $10 billion and produce 70,000 American jobs.

He said the Korea agreement was "more economically compelling" than the last nine free trade agreements combined.

The United States has free trade agreements with 17 countries. Recent additions include Oman, Peru, Bahrain, Morocco and several Central American countries.