The House Republican point man on trade said Wednesday that votes on three long-stalled agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama will be pushed back until the fall at the earliest because lawmakers working on the pacts are preoccupied with the fight over raising the federal debt limit.
But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp told business leaders at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast address that it looked like a deal will be worked out between President Obama and Hill Republicans that would finally allow the free-trade pacts to pass.
“I think [members] are distracted with the debt issues,” the Michigan Republican said. “I think [the trade deals] are passed after the debt limit.”
Congressional leaders from both parties are ready to move forward with the three trade pacts — after years of negotiations and renegotiations — but are still waiting on the White House to give them the go-ahead, Mr. Camp said. The agreements would be the first major trade deals approved since Mr. Obama took office in 2009.
But congressional Democratic aides have cautioned that no firm deal is in place and that the negotiations are still continuing.
Senate Democrats and House Republicans have been working on a compromise on funding for the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program that had been holding up the three agreements. Democrats said they would not support the trade deals unless the program, which provides retraining for U.S. workers affected by imports, was funded.
Under the new plan, the Senate would first pass a TAA package, Mr. Camp explained. Then, the White House would send the three trade agreements to the House, where they would vote on the trade agreements and TAA separately.
But the trade deals have moved slowly as both sides struggle for leverage in the negotiations.
The trade deals originally were negotiated by the George W. Bush administration several years ago, but the Democrat-controlled Congress at the time did not approve of them.
So the Obama administration, which has set a goal to double exports in five years, recently renegotiated the agreements to satisfy skeptical Democrats. But the president has continued to nudge Republicans for more in negotiations.
Labor unions, a key Democratic constituency, have long been wary of the trade agreements. Congressional Democrats have raised questions in particular about Colombia’s record on labor rights and protections for union leaders.
Mr. Camp and U.S. business groups have expressed fears that the stalemate will leave the U.S. on the sidelines as the European Union, Canada and other rivals rush to open markets with rising economic powers such as South Korea.
“We’re sitting on the sidelines while our trading partners are aggressively moving forward,” Mr. Camp said.
The Ways and Means chairman also had some pointed criticisms of China’s trade policy and what he said was Beijing’s manipulation of its currency, saying he planned hearings on its trade policies, currency and respect for international property rights.