Free-trade pacts held up for years near passage

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 9, 2011 - 10:16 PM

Congress expected to OK deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

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Erik Paulsen

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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WASHINGTON - Years of legislative gridlock on three U.S. trade agreements has given way to a rare bipartisan push in recent days, leading to a growing belief that the deals will be approved and, proponents say, provide a boost to the U.S. economy.

Trade pacts with South Korea, Panama and Colombia are expected to be approved by the House as early as Wednesday, and the Senate should take action within the next few weeks, according to sources in Congress and within the Obama administration.

"I see overall bipartisan support for all the agreements," said U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn. "Our constituents expect us to be results-oriented. This is an opportunity to work across the aisle."

If the three trade pacts are approved, tariffs would be eliminated or reduced on a variety of U.S. goods and services, which is expected to increase U.S. exports by more than $13 billion and create tens of thousands of jobs, according to the International Trade Commission.

The recent political momentum for the trade agreements is somewhat surprising, given the polarized nature of Congress over the past several months and worries that the pacts will cost the United States more jobs than they create. The trade deals were negotiated as far back as 2006, when President George W. Bush was in office.

As political pressure mounts to boost a sluggish U.S. economy, the trade deals have emerged as the only major economic legislation that can get through the GOP-controlled House and that has the support of President Obama, said Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst for the American Enterprise Institute. Both sides have plenty of incentive to get the trade package approved, Ornstein said, since there's such little agreement elsewhere.

"Republicans have got a lot of reasons to cooperate on the trade deals for a win-win situation," he said. "It demonstrates that they are not just obstructionists. And Obama would like to have a victory."

The House Ways and Means Committee approved the trade deals last week. A displaced-workers bill that Obama says must be part of any free-trade package already passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and appears to have the enough support in the House.

Paulsen, a Ways and Means member, expects the House to consider the pact with Colombia first because human rights concerns in that country have generated the most disagreement among the trade deals. The South Korea and Panama agreements appear to have widespread support.

"This is momentum, and we'll take it when we have it," Paulsen said.

The downside

Penny and Robert Mormann lost their jobs in 2008 when TRW, an auto parts manufacturer, moved its assembly line from Winona, Minn., to Reynosa, Mexico. Soon after, they lost their home to foreclosure.

"We are doing way too much with foreign countries," Penny Mormann said. "We need to do more in the U.S. I just wish I could find 'Made in the USA' products. You can't."

The couple tried job retraining programs, but didn't find them to be much help. Robert Mormann eventually found a job at a beer brewery in La Crosse, Wis. Penny Mormann is a self-employed crafts and health supplements salesperson.

Proponents of free trade agreements acknowledge that some U.S. companies and workers could be vulnerable to foreign competition, which is why Obama insists the legislation include preserving a program that would assist displaced workers.

Strong supporters

Minnesota's medical technology businesses and agricultural industries strongly support the trade deals, notably Medtronic and Cargill. Economists say meat producers also benefit from the open markets, while textile, apparel and electronic equipment makers may be pinched.

Organized labor opposes the trade agreements, although it has struggled to build momentum against the legislation. An AFL-CIO-organized call-in day and demonstration didn't generate significant phone traffic in the offices of Minnesota's representatives and senators. Still, labor leaders are pressing to defeat the trade deals.

"More jobs will be lost to imports and off-shoring than the deals create," said Jessica Lettween, director of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition, whose 40 member organizations called Congress last week to urge a no vote.

Within the Tea Party leadership, debate is ongoing over whether free trade means job creation, said Walter Hudson, chairman of a coalition of Minnesota Tea Party groups.

"Some want to protect American jobs," Hudson said. "Others of us believe we should find people who can do the jobs most efficiently."

Minnesota's congressional delegation appears to support at least some parts of the trade package.

Mxed reviews

Paulsen said he will vote for the trade agreements, including displaced worker assistance. Fellow Republicans John Kline and Michele Bachmann have expressed support for the trade pacts, but neither have said whether they would vote to continue assistance for displaced workers. The delegation's other Republican, Rep. Chip Cravaack, is still assessing the legislation, a spokesman said.

House Democrats Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum said they will likely oppose the three trade deals, but support displaced worker assistance. Ellison, a spokeswoman said, is looking for more assurances that the trade deals won't cost American jobs.

Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Tim Walz will support displaced workers assistance and vote for the South Korea trade pact, which he called "a net win for Minnesota," especially his farmer constituents who will enjoy new markets for their products. Walz said he opposes the Colombia and Panama deals because of human rights concerns in Colombia and potential financial corruption in Panama.

Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson did not respond to a request for comment.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, says she has misgivings about the Colombia deal, although she will likely vote for the Panama and South Korea deals. She voted for the displaced workers program passed recently by the Senate, as did Sen. Al Franken.

But Franken, D-Minn., continues to oppose the Colombia treaty because of assaults on labor leaders in that country. Franken is undecided on the South Korea and Panama deals.

His assessment was echoed by most other members of the Minnesota delegation: "The biggest factor I will consider when making this decision," said Franken, "is how the agreements will affect jobs in the state."

Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752

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    If approved by Congress, trade deals between the United States and Panama, Colombia and South Korea are expected to benefit U.S. businesses in agriculture, medical devices and pharmaceuticals. U.S. companies...

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