WASHINGTON (AFP) ― U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday threatened to hold up a trade pact with Korea unless President Barack Obama’s administration moves ahead on separate deals with Colombia and Panama.
Obama, who faces skepticism on free trade from part of his Democratic Party’s base, has publicly called for approval of deals with all three nations this year but wants time to fine-tune the packages with Panama and Colombia.
Senior Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said that the administration has “talked a big game” but shown a “lack of political courage.”
“If the president will not act, I will,” Hatch said at a Senate hearing.
“If the president ignores the will of the Congress and sends the Korea agreement without Colombia and Panama, I will do... everything that I can to make sure that those two agreements are considered at the same time as Korea,” Hatch said.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the chamber, voiced concern that Colombia ― one of the closest U.S. allies in Latin America ― was repairing ties with U.S. nemesis Venezuela and blamed the impasse over the trade deal.
“I, for one, am prepared to do everything in my power to pass these agreements together this year,” the Kentucky senator said. Obama will skip both Colombia and Panama on a tour of Latin America this month.
Senator Max Baucus, the Democrat who heads the Senate Finance Committee, doubted any action on the Korea deal by the House of Representatives ― now controlled by Republicans ― without movement on the other two pacts.
“It’s clear to me that none of these agreements are going to pass unless they’re all packaged,” Baucus said.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, testifying before the committee, insisted that the administration was working hard to have “all three agreements with the outstanding issues addressed and approved by Congress.”
“We seek the same widespread support for the pending trade agreements with Panama and Colombia that we have generated through our work on the Korea agreement,” Kirk said.
However, Kirk said that the Latin American pacts paled in comparison with the deal with Korea ― which would be the largest for the United States since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
“Panama and Colombia are very important allies. They’re good neighbors.
We’re making good progress,” Kirk said.
“But Korea... is more economically compelling than the last nine free trade agreements the United States has done combined,” he said.
The United States and Korea struck a deal in 2007 to eliminate most tariffs but the Obama administration renegotiated it, reaching an agreement to let the United States move more slowly on lifting auto tariffs.
The shift won over former critics including the Ford Motor Co. and the United Autoworkers union. But the AFL-CIO, the main U.S. trade confederation, is opposed, saying that the deal would benefit businesses without fundamentally helping workers struggling in a troubled economy.
Obama says the Korea trade deal would support 70,000 U.S. jobs through new exports. Critics dispute the figure and fear that U.S. manufacturing would suffer.
As for the Latin American deals, Democrats have voiced concerns about human rights including attacks against labor unions in Colombia.