Administration prepares to face grilling on trade
U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk heads to Capitol Hill this morning for what promises to be a testy hearing with lawmakers eager for the administration to move on three pending free trade agreements.
The Obama administration is close to submitting its agreement with Korea for Congressional approval, but Kirk will likely be grilled on what amounts to round two: pending pacts with Colombia and Panama that were negotiated by the George W. Bush administration but never sent to Congress.
Korea was low-hanging fruit compared with Colombia and Panama. In the original Bush deal, Korea would drop substantial tariffs on agricultural and other goods. Comparable U.S. tariffs are already low, and any visit to a Best Buy or auto mall shows how successful Korean companies have been with the American consumer. Subsequent changes negotiated by Kirk sweetened the deal for the United States, giving better access to the Korean market for U.S. automakers -- to the point where both car manufacturers and the United Auto Workers union gave joint support.
Colombia and Panama are a tougher sell politically, as some of President Obama's core constituencies are wary of Colombia's reputation as unfriendly to union organizers and labor rights, and of Panama's status as a tax haven. Both countries says they have made progress on such issues, and Congressional leaders have begun pushing the administration to move.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who called Wednesday's session, recently visited Colombia and has been pressing Kirk to lay out a timetable and reveal any explicit steps the administration expects from Colombia.
A heavy-hitting, bipartisan list of former U.S. trade representatives and experts on Latin America recently urged the administration to move ahead with the agreements -- now stalled for five years -- to open markets and as an acknowledgment of partnerships such as Colombia's help with anti-drug trafficking efforts in Afghanistan.
But as with Korea, the administration has been hesitant. As Kirk noted after winning changes to the Korea deal, delays were necessary to get a better agreement, and he has shown no interest so far in rushing either Colombia or Panama.
| March 9, 2011; 9:27 AM ET
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