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Reneging on a deal

Posted: June 11, 2011 - 10:19pm

The following editorial first appeared in the Miami Herald:

If the road map to ratification of the Colombia, Panama and South Korea free trade pacts were an obstacle course, it would resemble a minefield where new devices are planted as soon as old ones are cleared. The latest blow-up involves conditions and priorities preceding a vote, which only a few weeks ago seemed a sure thing.

The dispute has absolutely nothing to do with the agreements themselves. The devil is in the politics, not in the details.

The Obama administration spent two years holding the initiative back from Capitol Hill while it sought to win support from labor’s Democratic allies by toughening the terms of trade with the other countries. To soften the labor movement’s customary opposition to free-trade deals, the White House coupled them with an extension of unemployment insurance and retraining assistance for workers supplanted by foreign competition.

It seemed like a done deal until Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, threatened to block President Obama’s nominee for secretary of the Commerce Department unless he submits the trade deals without the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, saying it was too expensive.

It was not the first time the GOP leader threatened to kill the hostage unless he got his way. Last December, he insisted that the Senate would not ratify the Korea pact — which had no significant opposition within his own party — until all three pacts were submitted for approval as a package. Ultimately, Mr. Obama did so.

What is particularly frustrating about the latest hang-up is that practically everyone agrees the trade pacts are a no-brainer. They would support tens of thousands of jobs in this country at a time when unemployment remains stubbornly high.

The deal with Colombia alone is expected to boost U.S. exports by $1 billion, improving the U.S. trade balance, and increase business and commerce at the Port of Miami by a significant measure. It also has a national security dimension, helping to cement a U.S. commercial presence in a part of South America where the United States is losing influence. It makes no sense to throw a monkey wrench into the deal at this point.

Extending the Trade Adjustment Act is a fair swap. As written, the program would be renewed for 10 years for a total of $7.2 billion. That’s a lot of money, but this kind of help has always been a necessary part of the bargain with U.S. workers over globalization. If their jobs are going overseas to improve the reach of the U.S. economy, they should receive help adapting to the modernized domestic workforce.

Obama and Democrats have made compromises to get this far. Now it’s Sen. McConnell’s turn.

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after meeting with Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin, offered her counterpart reassurances that the free trade pact would win approval. “I am absolutely sure we’re going to get it passed,” she declared.

We wish we could share her optimism. Absent a breakthrough in this impasse, the legislation could remain in limbo forever. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the business community must help put a stop to this nonsense by telling their Republican allies to clear the way for passage. Republicans say they favor free trade. It’s time to prove it.

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