WASHINGTON – The Obama administration's top trade official said Friday he is "dumbfounded" and "shell-shocked" by Senate Republicans who blocked action on three free trade agreements the GOP largely supports.
In an interview with The Associated Press, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said he was caught by surprise when GOP senators didn't show up at a hearing Thursday to consider trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Republicans object to Democrats' decision to link the deals to the renewal of a program that retrains workers hurt by foreign trade, and want to consider the program separately.
"I'm dumbfounded," Kirk said. "The Republicans for the most part said, 'You get these agreements here, we'll pass them tomorrow, send them up.'"
The GOP boycott came after the White House heralded a bipartisan agreement between Senate Democrats and House Republicans over extending the retraining program, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA. But Republicans say that was an agreement about the size and scope of the extension of the training details, not the process for getting it through Congress. Republicans want to send the training program to the floor separately.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said it shouldn't have come as a surprise to the administration that Republicans had outstanding issues heading into Thursday's planned hearing.
Sen. Hatch "was clear about his serious concerns when the administration took the unprecedented path of including an unrelated spending measure" in a trade agreement, Hatch spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier said Friday.
Meantime, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York argued Friday that Republicans are purposefully sabotaging the economy to improve their election chances.
"In recent months, on issue after issue, they are opposing things they have supported in the past, almost all of them focused on the economy," Schumer said. "They seem to be tying themselves in a pretzel of contradiction."
The political posturing from both sides of the aisle leaves the fate of the three trade deals uncertain.
The administration and many Republicans have said they want to pass the trade deals by the time Congress breaks for August recess. If the deals don't pass this summer, political considerations could make it difficult for President Barack Obama to reintroduce the pacts in a re-election year. Unions and labor leaders — both are core constituencies for the president — are largely opposed to the free trade agreements.
For now, Obama is touting the deals as job creators that could give a much-needed jolt to an economy saddled with 9.1 percent unemployment.
"Right now, Congress can advance a set of trade agreements that would allow American businesses to sell more of their goods and services to countries in Asia and South America, agreements that would support tens of thousands of American jobs while helping those adversely affected by trade," Obama said Wednesday.
The U.S. signed the trade pacts with South Korea, Panama and Colombia in 2007 under President George W. Bush. But the then-Democratic-led Congress never brought the agreements up for vote, giving the Obama administration time to renegotiate areas it found objectionable.
U.S. trade officials spent months negotiating outstanding issues on the pacts, reaching an agreement in December on the deal with South Korea, the largest and most highly sought-after of the three. The administration says the trade deals combined would support more than 70,000 jobs and boost U.S. exports by about $13 billion.
Republicans have pressed the administration for months to submit the bills to Congress, saying delays were causing billions of dollars in losses for U.S. farmers and manufacturers having trouble competing in those markets because of high tariffs.
The bills to put the trade deals in place need approval from the Senate committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, with the White House getting involved to help negotiate a final version that each chamber can pass or reject, but not amend.
The House committee has yet to meet on the issue, and the Senate Finance Committee has not announced when it will make another attempt to consider the agreements.
Kirk said he's still optimistic lawmakers will come to an agreement this summer.
"I hope the imperative of doing something good for this country will override the appeal of scoring political points short-term," he said.
Associated Press writer Jim Abrams contributed to this report.
Julie Pace can be reached at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC.
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