After Republicans won the House last November, predictions of gridlock usually cited one potential exception—trade policy. President Obama affirmed his support for free-trade agreements (FTAs) in his State of the Union address in January, raising hopes that the three pending deals could be approved this year. As a Senate Foreign Relations Committee minority report argued, in an era of divided government, the agreements “provide an opportunity for bipartisan cooperation on the administration’s stated goal of doubling exports in 5 years.”
If only it were that easy. While yesterday’s “mock mark-ups” were a welcome and necessary step, they didn’t stand out for bipartisanship. The House Ways and Means Committee approved the implementing bills for the Colombia and Panama FTAs on partisan lines, with all Republican Members voting for them and all Democratic Members voting against. Many of these Democrats expressed support for the agreements, but used their nay votes to protest the omission of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) in the South Korea bill.
Indeed, TAA has proved to be the partisan sticking point. Many Republicans and Democrats can agree that free-trade agreements are tools to spur job creation and growth without deficit spending, but the same can’t be said of training for displaced workers. The unfortunate irony is that the fiscal cost of renewed funding for TAA would be much lower than the cost incurred to U.S. businesses by a failure to approve the three FTAs.
On the Senate side, the Finance Committee met yesterday on the second try, after Republicans boycotted the mock-up originally scheduled for June 30. The South Korea bill, with TAA language included, was the target of the partisan standoff, passing on party lines by 13 Democrats to 11 Republicans. Ranking Member Orrin Hatch vowed to vote against the agreement if it includes “the TAA poison pill.” For once, Colombia was less controversial with an 18-6 vote, and Panama passed easily, 22 to 2. No amendments passed.
The buzz in Washington was that the mark-ups turned out as well as they could have considering where we were a week ago. Yet the hyper-partisanship over TAA leaves the future of the trade pacts in jeopardy, even as urgency rises within the ranks of both parties to approve them before the August recess. House Ways and Means Chairman David Camp has promised to separately consider reauthorization of TAA if the White House submits the three deals without TAA provisions, but Democratic lawmakers and the Administration appear unconvinced.
For now, the decision on how to move forward rests with the White House, under fast-track authority granted when the pacts were negotiated. Today’s disappointing jobs report should only increase pressure to move on agreements that will expand market opportunities for U.S. good and services. Recent partisan wrangling, however, doesn’t leave much room for sanguinity.
The 112th Congress is on pace to be one of the least productive in years. Let’s hope that trade really does prove to be the opportunity for a bipartisan legislative accomplishment before summer’s end.
*Kezia McKeague is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She is director of government relations at the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.