The Obama administration's top trade official said Wednesday he is optimistic about passage of new free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, but the pacts would be submitted to Congress separately and not as a packaged deal, as many Republicans have been urging.
"It is highly unlikely to zero that they will be in one bill," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said. "… We would run the risk of having all three knocked down."
A spokesman for Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said it is unlikely this technicality will hold up the agreements yet again. The GOP was merely interested in voting on all three. So as long as they are submitted at the same time, they don't care how they are packaged.
There is still some work to be done on all three deals, said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas. The White House would like to start discussions with Congress on the details of the agreements soon, so they can send it to Congress in June.
The three pacts are "part of a larger strategy" to expand U.S. trade around the world, Mr. Kirk said. Currently, the U.S. has free-trade agreements in place with 17 countries.
He pointed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, as a big-picture goal for the White House. Nine countries, including the U.S. are negotiating the terms of the group.
The Unites States is hoping TPP will get an even bigger boost down the road if countries like China, Japan and South Korea join, said Jeff Schott, senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Trade deals with Brazil and India are also of national interest, Mr. Farnsworth said. President Obama has visited both nations recently.
"I think those are clearly countries where there's a real upside to trade," Mr. Farnsworth said.
The three pending agreements would be the first significant free-trade agreements passed under Mr. Obama, who has faced resistance to the trade pacts from a few congressional Democrats and the labor movement. Mr. Kirk said he hopes to gain union support for the agreements, but that the administration will push forward for congressional approval whether "our friends from labor" come on board or not.
"We did bring labor back to the table," Mr. Kirk said. "We have addressed a number of their concerns."
The AFL-CIO remains opposed to the three trade pacts, but it did acknowledge the administration's efforts to reach out and work with the labor federation.
The deals are bad news for the few Democrats who are standing by the unions.
"I am disappointed that the Obama Administration is pushing ahead with a package of all three free-trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama," said Rep. Mike Michaud, Maine Democrat. "… Bundling all three agreements might mean the White House can meet Republicans' demands, but it is a bad deal for U.S. manufacturing and American workers. I will work with my colleagues in Congress to defeat all of them."
The three agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama originally were struck under the George W. Bush administration. The Obama administration recently announced modified terms for all three.
Both Mr. Obama and top GOP leaders in Congress have said the trade deals could be one area of bipartisan cooperation at a time of conflict on many other agenda items. Mr. Obama has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years.
"If we're going to continue to grow and prosper as a country, trade has got to be a part of our economic future," Mr. Kirk said. "…Trade really can be a way to empower the U.S. to sell more and to create more jobs here."
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