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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