The Obama administration is under growing pressure from both parties on Capitol Hill to wrap up work on a package of long-delayed, Bush-era trade pacts, with lawmakers saying the United States continues to lose market share to China, Canada and others without the deals.
The latest salvo came Monday, when Senate Republicans vowed to block presidential nominees for any trade-related positions, including the soon-to-be open Commerce secretary post, until the administration allows the Senate to vote on stalled free-trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
The administration has completed the South Korean deal, but says it needs more time on the other two. All three require congressional approval.
Senate Republicans said the three deals — initially brokered by the George W. Bush administration — would significantly boost the U.S. farm, manufacturing and service industries, creating millions of American jobs.
"The easiest way, and the quickest way, to create new jobs for Americans here in America, would be to finally ratify the three trade agreements," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Mr. McConnell and 43 other Senate Republicans collectively sent Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, a letter Monday warning they "will use all the tools at our disposal to force action, including withholding support for any nominee for Commerce secretary and any trade-related nominees."
"This idea is borne out of frustration," said Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican. "We've tried everything else."
President Obama last week nominated Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to be the next ambassador to China but hasn't named a successor.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said the White House has had plenty of time — two years — to renegotiate the Colombia and Panama deals.
"As far as I'm concerned, talk is cheap, and this administration's not followed up with any real action," he said. "The result; we're falling behind our trading partners."
Mr. Hatch said without the deals the U.S. risks losing $11 billion in trade with South Korea, $3 billion with Colombia and up to $1 billion with Panama.
The president in December finalized a landmark free-trade pact with South Korea that promises to boost the domestic automotive industry and support tens of thousands of American jobs. The deal, which requires congressional approval, would be the largest since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1994.
Mr. Obama had held out for almost two years on the Korean pact in an effort to strengthen the deal in the favor of U.S. auto industry.
The deal, which was praised by both Democrats and Republicans, would allow the U.S. to keep its 2.5 percent tariff on South Korean cars for five years instead of lifting the tariff sooner, as the Koreans initially wanted. And each U.S. automaker could export 25,000 cars to the Asian country.
But the administration continues to hold out on the pending deal with Colombia in the hope of getting more assurances from the Colombian government that it will improve workers rights. And the Panama deal has stalled over concerns regarding the country's tax-haven status.
"My theory is that in trying to appease its union allies, the administration's willing to let these two agreements wither on the vine," Mr. Hatch said.
Mr. Portman, a former U.S. trade representative during the Bush administration, said as the pending trade deals collect dust, the European Union is moving forward with a trade deal with South Korea, while Canada has inked a trade pact with Colombia.
"As those agreements go into effect, again, market share will be taken from U.S. workers, U.S. farmers and U.S. service providers," he said.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, Michigan Republican, in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk this month also urged the administration to advance all three accords.
The Republican complaints came after Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus last week pushed the administration to complete the deals, saying "the time is here - the time is now."
"We're losing market share hand over fist" without the Colombia trade deal, said the Montana Democrat during a Senate hearing last week with Mr. Kirk.
Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, who briefly stopped by the hearing on his way to another, lent his support to Mr. Baucus' plea to quickly ratify the deals.
"I just wanted the record to reflect I'd like to associate myself with your remarks," Mr. Kerry said. "I think they're very important and I appreciate them."
Mr. Kirk told the panel the "wiser course of action" for Congress was to move first on South Korea because that deal was ready and the United States could not afford to put off the economic benefits of the proposed pact. It's estimated that the agreement will increase U.S. exports by $10 billion and produce 70,000 American jobs.
Mr. Kirk said that, while Panama and Colombia are important allies and "good neighbors," the Korean deal is "more economically compelling than the last nine free trade agreements the United States has done combined."
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