GOP presses Obama on Panama, Colombia trade pacts

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2011

Congressional Republicans are holding back approval of a White House-backed extension of worker benefits in order to pressure the Obama administration to finalize pending free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.

The move to link the two issues puts at risk a federal initiative that helps retrain and find work for several hundred thousand U.S. workers who have been displaced by global trade.

The long-standing Trade Adjustment Assistance program was broadened in 2009 in response to the recession, but the expanded benefits are due to expire Saturday unless Congress acts.

The measure was on the House calendar this week, but Republicans pulled it back on Tuesday so they could press the Obama administration to move more quickly on the pending free-trade pacts.

At a House Ways and Means Committee hearing Wednesday, Republicans urged the Obama administration to submit the Colombia and Panama agreements soon to keep in step with Canada and Europe, which are moving ahead on trade agreements with the two countries.

Further delay "severely disadvantages U.S. businesses who sell their products in these markets," said committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.). "Other countries are signing agreements that lower barriers for their exports and seize our opportunities."

The hearing marked U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk's first congressional testimony since the Obama administration's debut - a delay that illustrates the administration's struggle for a trade policy that squares the president's goal of increasing exports and his tough campaign rhetoric on how globalization contributes to the nation's soaring unemployment.

Kirk made clear that the administration will not move on the Panama and Colombia agreements without first revising them, although he noted that a trade pact with South Korea will soon be submitted to Congress.

Kirk said Obama had told him to "immediately intensify" efforts to finish the trade agreements with the two countries and noted that negotiators from his agency are bound for Colombia next week to expand on recent meetings held in Washington.

But "we will not sign agreements just for agreements' sake," Kirk said, as GOP lawmakers pressured him for a timetable.

Although progress has been made on some issues - such as getting Panama to take steps to prevent individuals and companies from using the country as a tax haven - others are more complicated. The issues under discussion with Colombia, for example, involve the independence of the country's judiciary and violence against union organizers.

"It is not just related to market access," Kirk said. "It goes to core values. . . . That is something we won't compromise on."

The Bush administration struck free-trade pacts with Panama and Colombia in 2006 and 2007, respectively, but they never received congressional approval. Agreements with the two countries, despite their small size, are still considered significant. In the case of Panama, for instance, a pact would pave the way for U.S. companies to bid on work related to the widening of the Panama Canal.

Gabriel Silva, Colombia's ambassador to the United States, said it was wrong for the administration to delay action on the free-trade pact for what he said is an outdated view of his country.

"To suggest that for years Colombia has stood idly by and not taken aggressive steps to protect human and labor rights, and enhance union rights and the rule of law, are claims not based on current facts," he said. "Often it is convenient to leverage old arguments based on Colombia's past."

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