Obama Ends Long Delay on Free-Trade Agreements; House GOP Set to Fast-Track Pacts

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Byline: Stephen Dinan, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

President Obama on Monday sent Congress long-delayed free-trade agreements with Panama, South Korea and Colombia, breaking a deadlock that extends back to the George W. Bush administration and setting up a showdown on Capitol Hill.

Acting with unusual speed amid so much other gridlock, Republican congressional leaders said they will put the agreements on the House floor next week, where the vote is likely to expose deep divisions among Mr. Obama's fellow Democrats.

In a message accompanying the agreements, Mr. Obama promised that the trade deals would spawn much-needed jobs at home, though that message has proved to be a tough sell to many who fear competition will send the country's 9.1 percent unemployment rate higher still.

These agreements will support tens of thousands of jobs across the country for workers making products stamped with three proud words:'Made in America,'" Mr. Obama said. Administration officials said they had won updates to the agreements that protect workers overseas and promised to step up enforcement of existing agreements to ensure fairness.

The agreements were negotiated under Mr. Bush and have been pending since the beginning of Mr. Obama's tenure, though he had repeatedly delayed submitting them to Congress for a vote.

Monday's move makes good on a deal Democrats and the GOP reached earlier this year to couple the agreements with renewed assistance for workers displaced by international competition, but it also raises thorny questions about American jobs and the benefits of open trade at a time of high unemployment.

The president is sending mixed messages by sending these free-trade agreements to Congress, said Rep. Michael H. Michaud, Maine Democrat. He wants to pass more free-trade agreements, but conditions it on an extension of benefits for all those that will be harmed by them. Does he want to create jobs at home with the American Jobs Act, or does he want to offshore them to places like South Korea?

Not all of the agreements are viewed the same, either.

Two top Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee said they will support the Panama and South Korea deals, but that they'll vote against the Colombia agreement because the Obama administration has failed to secure enough worker protections. Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, called the agreement fundamentally flawed.

The bargain Mr. Obama and congressional Republicans worked out makes all sides swallow hard and accept things they might otherwise have opposed.

For Republicans, the extension of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which benefits those who lose their jobs because of international competition, is the most contentious part of the bargain.

Tying TAA together with the trade deals could have pitfalls. If opponents all band together, they could sink the entire package. But leaders are hoping all sides will see potential benefits and vote for the parts they like, which would ensure enough support for the whole bargain to pass.

House Republicans said they will vet enabling legislation for the agreements in committee this week and set up a final floor vote next week. …