Obama’s free-trade goal hits roadblock

Democrats give him little help

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But critics of the agreement aren’t optimistic that sticking points can be resolved in time for the November summit.

“I would be surprised if they’re able to come through with a major breakthrough on autos” by then, said Jeff Vogt, the AFL-CIO’s global economic specialist. Even if those issues were worked out, the union still has major concerns with other aspects of the agreement relating to investments and services, he added.

Business groups - which were pleasantly surprised by Mr. Obama’s November deadline for a South Korea deal - warn that the U.S. government must act quickly. They note that South Korea’s trade agreement with the European Union, tentatively set to be signed this fall, has caused American meat and dairy exports to South Korea to plunge.

The Chamber of Commerce’s Mr. Wenk said efforts by some in the United States to renegotiate pieces of the South Korea deal could open the floodgates for other industries seeking better terms and lead some South Korea industry groups to demand changes as well.

According to a November study by the Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. stands to lose $35 billion in exports to the world and as many as 345,000 jobs if it fails to implement the agreement with South Korea. Canada, which recently ratified a trade pact with Colombia, is in negotiations with South Korea, as is Australia.

As a result of his public push, Mr. Obama now has “a little bit of credibility on the line,” said Daniel J. Ikenson, a trade policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

“There’s just no way that there’s any momentum or any effort to get this Korea deal passed in Congress before November,” he said. “I think Obama wants to go to Korea and say, ‘Look, we’ve made some progress.’ “

In addition to autos, South Korea’s restrictions on U.S. beef is another point of contention. More than 100 House Democrats, in a July letter to Mr. Obama, asked for a meeting on the South Korea agreement. Though not part of the deal, the country’s partial ban on U.S. beef imports dating back to an outbreak of mad cow disease in 2003 has several lawmakers calling for the South Korean government to ease its ban before moving ahead on the deal.

“I don’t know why I should schedule a hearing” on the free-trade agreement if the disparity continues, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, told Mr. Kirk at an oversight hearing earlier this month.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, however, argues that South Korea could be the biggest bilateral trade-opening agreement the U.S. industry has ever seen. Gregg Doud, the trade group’s economist, said the impact of eliminating Seoul’s 40 percent tariff could create a $1 billion beef market for U.S. producers - the world’s biggest single export market.

Free-trade advocates say the deals signed by the Bush administration with Colombia in November 2006 and with Panama in June 2007 should be more of a sure thing, considering the U.S. already imposes no tariffs on 95 percent of imports from those countries. In July, Mr. Obama said he would like to submit the Colombia and Panama agreements to Congress “as soon as possible.”

But unions and top congressional Democrats are staunchly opposed to the Colombia agreement on the grounds that the country doesn’t do enough to prevent violence against labor leaders. Mr. Vogt said 30 union members have been killed so far this year.

Supporters of the trade agreement swiftly reject those concerns as outdated, saying critics do not give the Colombian government enough credit for improvements in safety over the past few decades. Mr. Ikenson called the argument a red herring, saying “it’s just a conversation-killer.”

Indeed, Mr. Dreier said postponing consideration of those two agreements until after South Korea was a “real slap in the face of our strongest allies in this hemisphere.”

Analysts say Mr. Obama’s best hope for getting the deals approved by Congress is probably for Republicans to pick up seats in November.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Kara Rowland

Kara Rowland

Kara Rowland, White House reporter for The Washington Times, is a D.C.-area native. She graduated from the University of Virginia, where she studied American government and spent nearly all her waking hours working as managing editor of the Cavalier Daily, UVa.’s student newspaper.

Her interest in political reporting was piqued by an internship at Roll Call the summer before her ...

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