The already protracted battle over three long-stalled trade deals got a little bit longer Thursday as a key Senate panel was forced to put off consideration of the pacts after Republicans abruptly decided to boycott the meeting.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (R-Mont.) convened a hearing of his panel at the Capitol at 3 p.m. – but the 11 Republicans on the committee failed to show up.
Five of those Republicans, led by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), were instead holding their own news conference at which they slammed Democrats both for the “obnoxious” move of scheduling the markup late on a Thursday afternoon — which Republicans argued would hinder the panel’s consideration of nearly 100 amendments to the trade pacts that had been submitted — and for attaching to one of the trade deals the renewal of a program that would aid workers who have lost their jobs because of outsourcing.
“The president knew where we stood, and he decided to ignore those who don’t agree with him,” said Hatch, who was joined at the news conference by Republican Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), John Thune (S.D.), Pat Roberts (Kansas) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.).
“For a president and an administration and leaders in Congress who say that they are concerned about economic growth and job creation, to leave something like this sitting around for four years ... is inexcusable,” Thune said. “But this is another tactic being used where this process, the free trade agreements, are being hijacked to get spending that the administration wants.”
The day’s events show how complicated the politics of trade remain for the Obama administration. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk was able to negotiate significant changes in the Korea pact that made it palatable to both corporate and union interests who had opposed it, and lobbied the government of Colombia to make more tangible progress in protecting labor activists from violence.
But the agreements remain, at some level, polarizing in a way that the administration has not been able to resolve.
A compromise agreement announced this week has looked less and less certain. Some leading Democrats still don’t like the Colombia deal because of the country’s long reputation for anti-union violence. Republicans don’t like the Korea deal enough to let it pass with the trade adjustment program as part of it.
The standoff led to the odd spectacle of Democratic members of the Senate Finance committee gathered on their side of a half-empty committee table, greeted by a phalanx of vacant chairs on the Republican side. They extolled the benefits of free trade, talked of the need to generate jobs at a time of high unemployment, and wondered about the GOP no-show.
“We had an option today to strengthen our economy, and our Republican colleagues refused to show up for work,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). “Hundreds of millions of people showed up for work today. And they expected we would show up to solve our country’s problems.”
The delay is a disappointment for the administration and its newfound ally on the issue – the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In a letter to the finance committee ahead of Thursday’s non-meeting, chamber lobbyist R. Bruce Josten said the business lobby supported not just the free trade agreements but the trade adjustment program and the other items being tucked into them.
He urged senators to sign off on the agreements and – in italics—“to oppose all amendments.”
From the business community’s perspective, time is running short. Europe has a free trade pact with Korea that begins July 1, and Canada has one with Colombia as of Aug. 15. And there is a widely held assumption that if the agreements are not approved before the summer recess, the politics of the upcoming election year will make them harder to move.
Baucus seized on that point Thursday in criticizing Senate Republicans for moving to delay the eventual passage of the trade deals, arguing that “every day we delay, we lose ground to our competitors.”
“Tomorrow, Korea’s trade agreement with the European Union enters into force,” he said. “In August, Colombia’s agreement with Canada enters into force. A majority of the Committee has committed to support the Korea/TAA legislation. That means it would have cleared this committee. It would have moved one step closer to ratification.”
In addition to Thursday’s speed bump in the Senate, there is also the possibility that House Republicans may seek to separate TAA from the three trade deals when they return from recess next week.
“We’ll have to watch the House on this matter,” Hatch said of the trade adjustment assistance program. “I believe the House is very likely to bring that up separately. If it passes the House, it shows they can do this. Why gum up the free trade agreements that the president has said we absolutely need to have?”