On Monday afternoon, three key Republican senators fielded questions on free trade and rolled out a letter to Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that was signed by a total of 44 Republicans. (Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Susan Collins of Maine and Olympia Snowe of Maine aren’t enamored of free trade, apparently. Funny, I thought Paul was a pro-free-markets, libertarian sort of fellow). Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) started off strong:
The president, to his credit, says he’s in favor of doing all three agreements. What we have been perplexed by is the lack of willingness to initiate the process. Only Korea appears to be imminent. We believe that Korea, Panama, and Colombia all should be sent up forthwith, as rapidly as possible.
There was an interesting article, I believe, just a week ago, I think in the New York Times, about how the Colombians are simply recalibrating, given the fact that we’ve moved away from them, establishing a relationship with Hugo Chavez, upping their contacts with Chinese businessmen — in other words, moving on without us, and Colombia, of course, has been our strongest ally arguably in South America.
So Senator Portman has suggested to Senator Hatch and myself that there might be a way to provide the president some additional incentive. And so I’m here today to announce that we have got 44 signatures on a letter to the president indicating that we don’t intend to move forward on the nomination of a new secretary of commerce or any other trade-related position that requires confirmation in the Senate until all three trade agreements are sent to the Senate and the House for consideration. So this particular letter will go out today.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) didn’t mince words:
Now, the White House has spent two years talking about the importance of exports and trade, but as far as I’m concerned, talk is cheap, and this administration’s not followed up with any real action of much of what needs to be done here.
The result: We’re falling behind our trading partners. And while we wait, other countries are writing the trade rules. While we hesitate, other countries are opening up markets for their workers and their job-creators. And these two clear examples are our trade agreements with Colombia and Panama that were signed years ago. The president says he wants to get them done, but we’ve heard that over and over. After two years in office, we still don’t know whether the president will ever submit the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements to Congress for a vote. . . .
My first is that, in trying to appease its union allies, the administration is willing to let these two agreements wither on the vine. Now, that would be profoundly disappointing. And it would ultimately — ultimately amount to a blow to our economy, our entire economy . . .
Now, our message is clear: Unless the president acts on these agreements, we will withhold support for any nominee for commerce secretary or any other trade-related nominees. We can’t afford to let the president’s failure to act on these agreements continue to diminish our standing in the world or further harm our businesses and our workers.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former trade representative for the Bush administration, added: “Just quickly, on a — on a finance committee hearing last week, what you saw there was a bipartisan push to have the president send up all three agreements. So it wasn’t so much holding up one agreement for another; it was this frustration that is felt on both sides of the aisle with the lack of progress on opportunities to create jobs here in America.” He clearly has lost patience with the administration:
It’s time to move forward. And it’s time to move forward for all the reasons we’ve stated today that relate to jobs and exports, but also because all three of these countries are allies and partners of ours in critical parts of the world. And Senator McConnell talked a little about the importance in Latin America of having a strong ally who is supported by us and sticks with us. That’s certainly true with Panama and Colombia.
And with regard to Korea, it’s incredibly important to have an American footprint in that part of the world on trade. When we started the negotiations on the Korea trade opening agreement, so-called KORUS agreement, the United States was the largest trading partner with Korea. Today, China is the largest trading partner with Korea, and we’re losing market share every day we don’t complete our agreement.
As I noted earlier, in July, it’s expected that the countries of the European Union are going to complete and implement their trade-opening agreement with Korea, making matters even worse. So it’s time to move forward on all three of these agreements.
Portman cogently explained why the Republicans were threatening to hold up confirmations if the deals were not completed: “[I]t was this frustration that is felt on both sides of the aisle with the lack of progress on opportunities to create jobs here in America.” To emphasize the connection to jobs, he explained: “In the last three or four years, our share of agricultural exports to Colombia, one of the countries that we’re talking about here, has diminished substantially, as Colombia has completed agreements with other countries. So with regard to corn, and wheat, and soybeans, we’ve gone from a 71 percent U.S. market share of exports of agricultural products to a 27 percent market share.”
The senators have the better side of the argument. In fact, the White House’s position is so bad that the president had to signal support for the deals in his State of the Union address and leave it to his subordinates to drag their feet. Unfortunately for the president, the Republicans have called him out. Now the question for President Obama is: Support Big Labor or support jobs?
A final point: No Democrats joined in the letter, despite their fine words of praise for the free-trade deals. Republicans wasted little time in reminding us that Democrats were as scornful as Republicans were of the White House’s delaying tactics. Apparently they are annoyed with Obama, but not enough to actually do something to move along these agreements.