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Free the free-trade agreements

By Editorial,

THE PARTISAN DEADLOCK over trade policy continues. If anything, it’s getting worse. As of two weeks ago, President Obama had decided — after much unwarranted delay — to send Congress tariff-slashing pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama but was insisting that Republicans first commit to renewing benefits and retraining assistance for workers displaced by foreign competition. Now Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has retaliated, promising to block action on Mr. Obama’s nominee for commerce secretary unless the president submits the free-trade deals unconditionally. There is an alarmingly strong chance that they may not pass before Congress leaves town in August — or ever.

What’s especially maddening about all of this is that most Republicans and Democrats claim to agree on the benefits of the trade pacts. First, all three potential partners, especially South Korea and Colombia, are regional allies that both deserve and need the diplomatic backing that free trade with the United States would symbolize. Second, the agreements are likely to prove a net plus for the U.S. economy when jobs are in short supply. And, third, if the United States fails to forge closer trade ties with these countries, competitors in Europe, Asia and the Americas will gladly take up the slack.

As for trade adjustment assistance, the ostensible bone of contention, even many Republicans in Congress support it, some because they believe it genuinely ameliorates the localized costs of foreign competition and others because they believe — as we do — that it is an imperfect program whose passage is a tolerable price, politically, for the greater good of expanded trade. A significant number of House and Senate Republicans, however, urged on by anti-spending purists such as the Club for Growth, have decided to make a stand against the billion dollars the program would cost. Party leaders appear unable or unwilling to resist.

Unless this impasse breaks, the collateral damage could include previously uncontroversial legislation that has long promoted U.S. trade with other developing countries but has lapsed pending resolution of the dispute over South Korea, Colombia and Panama. It could take months or years to undo the resulting harm to the economy and to the reputation of U.S. trade policy.

Determining the merits of this increasingly self-referential quarrel between the two parties would take 100 marriage counselors 100 years. Both sides have played politics with trade and both have inappropriately linked the three foreign countries to more peripheral matters. But the big picture is clear: For two years, Republicans justifiably demanded that Mr. Obama end his opposition to the pacts; he has done that. All he wants in return at this point is a commitment by the GOP to accept trade adjustment assistance — or at least not block it — as it has in the past. If Republicans on Capitol Hill are more concerned about the national interest than placating their own right wing, they’ll meet the president halfway — and get these deals done while they still matter.

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