Bloomberg News

Obama Sends Trade Agreements to Congress, Ending Four-Year Wait

October 03, 2011

Oct. 4 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama sent Congress legislation for free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, ending a wait for business supporters that spanned more than four years and two presidencies.

Packed into 18 boxes and piled into a sport-utility vehicle, the bills were driven from the White House to the Capitol yesterday after House Speaker John Boehner pledged to debate them in tandem with benefits for workers who lose jobs to foreign competition. The pacts, reached under President George W. Bush, had been stymied by a stalemate with Republicans over the aid, called Trade Adjustment Assistance.

Obama spent two years after taking office seeking to broaden Democratic support for the trade accords. He negotiated new terms for auto tariffs in the South Korea agreement that won over the United Auto Workers union, a deal on exchanging tax information with Panama and labor-rights assurances from Colombia. Companies from Caterpillar Inc. to General Electric Co. have lobbied for the agreements to increase market access.

“We’ve worked hard to strengthen these agreements to get the best possible deal for American workers and businesses,” Obama said in a statement. “I call on Congress to pass them without delay, along with the bipartisan agreement on Trade Adjustment Assistance that will help workers whose jobs have been affected by global competition.”

The House Rules Committee yesterday set guidelines for a vote on the worker aid, creating a path forward for renewing the benefits. Representative Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican who heads the Ways and Means Committee, said he plans to hold a hearing tomorrow to prepare the trade accords for debate.

‘Top Priority’

“We have overcome a crucial hurdle to helping put Americans back to work,” Boehner said in an e-mailed statement welcoming Obama’s submission of the trade deals. “Now that all three agreements have been transmitted, they will be a top priority for the House.”

Lawmakers will vote as early as next week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said yesterday.

The bills for the accords are covered by fast-track rules intended to require Congress to vote within 90 legislative days, limiting debate and amendments before an up-or-down vote.

They may move sooner. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday he expects the Senate to act on them this month.

The South Korea deal, the biggest since the North American Free Trade Agreement, would boost U.S. exports by as much as $10.9 billion in the first year in which it’s in full effect, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission. The accord with Colombia would increase exports by as much as $1.1 billion a year. The South Korea and Panama pacts were signed in June 2007, while the Colombia accord was signed in November 2006.

Citigroup, Pfizer

Companies such as Ace Ltd., Citigroup Inc. and Pfizer Inc. have led the effort to get the South Korea deal passed, while Caterpillar, GE and Whirlpool Corp. have been among the biggest backers of the accord with Colombia.

“For several years, we have pressed for approval,” Jeffrey Immelt, GE’s chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “We urge Congress to pass the agreements and Trade Adjustment Assistance quickly.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the agreements will prevent the loss of 380,000 jobs. The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of labor unions, says they will lead to a decline in U.S. manufacturing as jobs move overseas.

Labor leaders, who are usually Obama allies, said they plan to protest the trade agreements at a rally outside the Capitol today.

The accords also face opposition among some Democratic lawmakers. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Mike Michaud of Maine are scheduled to join Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union, at the rally to pledge their opposition to the accords.

‘Not The Time’

“With an exploding trade deficit that has caused massive job loss, now is not the time to pass more wrongheaded free- trade agreements,” Brown, who wrote the book “Myths of Free Trade” in 2006, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. Michaud, who heads the House Trade Working Group, a coalition made up mostly of Democrats who question the value of free-trade accords, plans to build “the broadest coalition possible” to oppose the three agreements, Ed Gilman, a spokesman, said in an e-mail last month.

The South Korea agreement would remove duties on almost two-thirds of U.S. farm exports immediately, benefiting producers of meat, dairy, vegetables, and fruits and nuts. It would also phase out tariffs on more than 95 percent of industrial and consumer exports within five years, increasing market access for chemical, automobile, medical device and drug companies. Banks and communications companies would gain new opportunities through reductions in regulatory barriers.

Pull Out Stops

“America is finally getting back in the game,” Thomas Donohue, chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “The Chamber will pull out all of the stops to get the votes in Congress, where the agreements already enjoy bipartisan support.”

Obama and Senate Republicans deadlocked over the aid in May, with Republicans led by Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah saying the worker assistance, which was expanded in the 2009 stimulus measure, was unaffordable and inefficient.

The worker aid was scaled back in a compromise reached by Camp; Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat; and Gene Sperling, director of the president’s National Economic Council.

It would extend benefits, including those for service workers that expired in February, through 2013 while cutting the weeks of extended unemployment insurance that participants can receive to 130 from 156, and reducing the health-care tax credit for people enrolled in the program.

“We must take every opportunity to get America back to work, and Congress should pass these agreements without delay,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a statement. “Taken together, the pending trade agreements and Trade Adjustment Assistance advance a balanced trade agenda that opens new markets for our exporters and new opportunities for America’s working families.”

--Editors: Steve Geimann, Larry Liebert

To contact the reporter on this story: Eric Martin in Washington at emartin21@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Liebert at lliebert@bloomberg.net


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