- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2011

President Obama on Monday finally sent Congress long-delayed free-trade agreements with Panama, South Korea and Colombia, breaking a deadlock that extends back to the George W. Bush administration and setting up a showdown on Capitol Hill.

Acting with unusual speed amid so much other gridlock, Republican congressional leaders said they will put the agreements on the House floor next week, where the vote is likely to expose deep divisions among Mr. Obama’s fellow Democrats.

In a message accompanying the agreements, Mr. Obama promised that the trade deals would spawn much-needed jobs at home, though that message has proved to be a tough sell to many who fear competition will send the country’s 9.1 percent unemployment rate higher still.

“These agreements will support tens of thousands of jobs across the country for workers making products stamped with three proud words: ‘Made in America,’” Mr. Obama said. Administration officials said they had won updates to the agreements that protect workers overseas and promised to step up enforcement of existing agreements to ensure fairness.

The agreements were negotiated under Mr. Bush and have been pending since the beginning of Mr. Obama’s tenure, though he had repeatedly delayed submitting them to Congress for a vote.

Monday’s move makes good on a deal Democrats and the GOP reached earlier this year to couple the agreements with renewed assistance for workers displaced by international competition, but it also raises thorny questions about American jobs and the benefits of open trade at a time of high unemployment.

“The president is sending mixed messages by sending these free-trade agreements to Congress,” said Rep. Michael H. Michaud, Maine Democrat. “He wants to pass more free-trade agreements, but conditions it on an extension of benefits for all those that will be harmed by them. Does he want to create jobs at home with the American Jobs Act, or does he want to offshore them to places like South Korea?”

Not all of the agreements are viewed the same, either.

Two top Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee said they will support the Panama and South Korea deals, but that they’ll vote against the Colombia agreement because the Obama administration has failed to secure enough worker protections. Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, called the agreement “fundamentally flawed.”

The bargain Mr. Obama and congressional Republicans worked out makes all sides swallow hard and accept things they might otherwise have opposed.

For Republicans, the extension of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which benefits those who lose their jobs because of international competition, is the most contentious part of the bargain.

Tying TAA together with the trade deals could have pitfalls. If opponents all band together, they could sink the entire package. But leaders are hoping all sides will see potential benefits and vote for the parts they like, which would ensure enough support for the whole bargain to pass.

House Republicans said they will vet enabling legislation for the agreements in committee this week and set up a final floor vote next week.

“These common-sense trade agreements are a key component of the House Republicans’ jobs plan,” said Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican. “We welcome the president’s action to help get our economy back on track, get people back to work and put our country on even footing with our foreign competitors.”

Also Monday, the Senate voted 79-19 to advance legislation that would crack down on China’s currency, which lawmakers said the U.S.’s top economic competitor manipulates for trade benefits. The legislation would impose higher compensatory tariffs on goods from countries deemed to be manipulating their currency, which many contend Beijing has long done to boost its exports.

“I, for one, will not sit back and continue to let mercantilist trade practices continue to decimate American manufacturing and American jobs,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

The legislation, which faces a final vote likely later this week, enjoys strong support from Democrats but splits Republicans.

Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, warned senators not to risk a trade war or treat the legislation as a warning shot. He said the currency bill imposed strict new rules without any flexibility.

“Is this what the United States Senate wants to do today?” he said.

Some lawmakers tied the China currency legislation to the trade agreements, saying the U.S. is poised to reassert an active role in the international economy.

The Colombia trade agreement was signed in November 2006, the Panama agreement was signed in January 2007 and the South Korea deal was reached in June 2007.

Backers said the agreements could boost U.S. exports by $13 billion, while opponents said it could deepen the trade deficit by $16 billion and displace 200,000 workers.

Republicans have been begging for years for the administration to submit the deals for a vote, and Mr. Obama at various times seemed to agree, including mentioning it as an area of cooperation in his 2010 and 2011 State of the Union addresses.

But he repeatedly delayed, as he sought to sweeten the deal for American workers and to appease the concerns of labor union leaders, many of whom remain adamantly opposed to the agreements.

Mr. Obama himself, as a member of the Senate, voted against the Central America Free Trade Agreement in 2005. And during the presidential campaign in 2008 he said he opposed the Colombia agreement, arguing that violence against trade union leaders in that country showed Colombia did not have the kinds of protections needed for free but fair trade.

He also called the South Korea agreement “bad for American workers.”

But in 2010, Mr. Obama promised to double U.S. exports over five years, and his trade representative said the agreements were a top priority.

The administration worked on some outstanding issues with the countries, including insisting on updates to deal with South Korea and securing a labor rights plan that Colombia implemented in June.