The sense of anticipation is everywhere, but it’s not clear yet that anything will happen.
After weeks of hearings and debate over long-stalled free-trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, Democrats in both the House and the Senate have been stepping up in recent days to stake out positions on the deals.
Fueling the anticipation are newly intensified negotiations with both Colombia and Panama, and a looming deadline set by House Republicans for ratification of all three deals by July 1. Despite reservations and qualifications, the emerging consensus among a growing number of Democrats is that they’re ready to say yes to the deals.
Last weekend, leaders of the centrist New Democrat Coalition sent a letter to President Obama pledging their support for advancing the deals this year. The leaders of the 68-member coalition joined the chorus of Republicans who say they fear that a growing number of other countries will get a jump on U.S. exporters by completing their own trade deals.
“Other nations have not hesitated to move forward aggressively on their own trade-barrier reducing treaties,” the letter said. “In the meantime, U.S. farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and service providers will continue to face significant trade barriers and will be forced to adjust to rules that put us at a competitive disadvantage.”
That same argument has been a popular Republican talking point for months. While Obama administration officials have insisted that trade agreements must adhere to international standards for labor, human rights, and rule of law, the lingering effects of the recession have fed pressure to pass any deal that might create jobs.
And House Democrats were not alone in supporting the pro-trade agenda. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., wrote a joint op-ed in The Wall Street Journal touting the job-creating benefits of trade. Though Kerry has not made trade a prime issue in the past, his support adds weight and immediacy to the Democrats’ push.
The two senators argued the export opportunities in the pending deals were “critical to American innovation and economic growth” and would “expand opportunity for workers and entrepreneurs, both at home and abroad.”
But Democrats are still torn by internal divisions. House Ways and Means ranking member Sander Levin, D-Mich., implored Obama to stand his ground and take the time to negotiate deals that meet high standards. Levin, who is one of the leading Democratic voices on trade, argued that work must still be done before the pacts with Colombia and Panama win his support.
But economic pressure combined with progressive promises from leaders in Colombia and Panama may be enough to win the support of a large number of Democrats.
Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., the head of the New Democrats, argued that leaders in Colombia and Panama have taken promising steps to resolve the administration’s concerns and, at this point, the job benefits are clear.
“Both Colombia and Panama are good agreements economically for the United States,” he said. And though he said there is still some work to be done, Crowley said he is ready to move forward.
This article appears in the April 5, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.