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Kelsey Snell
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Kelsey Snell
Oct. 9, 2013, 6:29 p.m.

After sweep­ing Re­pub­lic­an vic­tor­ies that threaten to undo much of the Demo­crat­ic agenda, Pres­id­ent Obama could look to an of­ten-over­looked is­sue to build bridges and claim bi­par­tis­an­ship: pending trade agree­ments with South Korea, Panama, and Colom­bia.

Trade does not of­ten fall along tra­di­tion­al party lines, and many of the largest trade agree­ments have moved for­ward with bi­par­tis­an co­oper­a­tion, such as the North Amer­ic­an Free Trade Agree­ment, which was ne­go­ti­ated by Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush and signed in­to law by Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton.

Com­pan­ies search­ing for new mar­kets and in­creased sales are hope­ful that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion can rep­lic­ate the suc­cess in deals ne­go­ti­ated by the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion with South Korea, Panama, and Colom­bia. Those deals stalled in the face of Demo­crat­ic res­ist­ance, though, over a vari­ety of is­sues, in­clud­ing vi­ol­ence against labor lead­ers in Colom­bia to auto­mobile and beef trade with South Korea.

In re­cent months U.S. Trade Rep­res­ent­at­ive Ron Kirk has been en­gaged in ne­go­ti­ations with Korean of­fi­cials. After the most re­cent round of ne­go­ti­ations wrapped last week, Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials stressed that trade with Korea was a vi­tal pri­or­ity.

“If you go back to the pres­id­ent’s State of the Uni­on, where he talked about doub­ling ex­ports, that in­cludes trade agree­ments and bi­lat­er­al in­vest­ment treat­ies,” John En­gler, pres­id­ent and CEO of the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Man­u­fac­tur­ers, said today. “I think there are a lot of things to work to­geth­er on, trade is one. That really is up to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

But En­gler is skep­tic­al of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s will­ing­ness to make trade a mar­quee is­sue. Trade deals with Colom­bia and Panama have been on the table since Obama took of­fice but he has not moved them for­ward. Man­u­fac­tur­ers are look­ing at the pres­id­ent’s pre­vi­ous ac­tion on trade and may lack con­fid­ence in Obama’s will­ing­ness to move for­ward now.

“We’ve done a lot of work in show­ing where we have free-trade agree­ments with the U.S., we have a pos­it­ive bal­ance of trade,” En­gler said. “If he’s ser­i­ous about doub­ling ex­ports, he has to get mov­ing.”

An­oth­er chal­lenge to the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom on trade bi­par­tis­an­ship is the staunch anti-Demo­crat­ic po­s­i­tion Re­pub­lic­ans have taken since Obama took of­fice.

“I don’t have much doubt that someone in the Re­pub­lic­an caucus is go­ing to say ‘we just spent the past two years op­pos­ing Obama on everything and it worked,’” said Wil­li­am Re­insch, pres­id­ent of the Na­tion­al For­eign Trade Coun­cil. “The Re­pub­lic­ans have to de­cide if they gain more by co­oper­at­ing than fight­ing. I don’t think they’re go­ing to im­me­di­ately leap to the con­clu­sion that they should agree.”

But Re­pub­lic­an trade lead­ers, in­clud­ing Reps. Kev­in Brady, R-Texas, and Dave Camp, R-Mich., have been very vo­cal about mak­ing trade a high pri­or­ity in the next Con­gress. Camp is likely to be the new chair­man of the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, and Brady would be in line to chair that pan­el’s Trade Sub­com­mit­tee.

“Un­der a Re­pub­lic­an House lead­er­ship, if the pres­id­ent is ser­i­ous about mov­ing for­ward on trade, he will have a ser­i­ous part­ner on Cap­it­ol Hill,” Brady said at an Oc­to­ber 25 meet­ing in Wash­ing­ton.

The Novem­ber 11 dead­line for the Korean trade agree­ment set by Obama is fast ap­proach­ing and may give im­me­di­ate signs about how the ad­min­is­tra­tion will move for­ward.

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