By Susan Cornwell
June 5, 2009
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A leading Senate Democrat urged the White House on Friday to say when it would send a free-trade agreement with Panama to Congress, saying he worried it was getting postponed amid work on healthcare reform.
The complaints from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus highlighted feuding in President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party over free-trade deals negotiated by the Bush administration with Panama, Colombia and South Korea but not sent to Congress for approval by Obama’s White House.
Democrats like Baucus, who is from the farm state of Montana, support the Panama deal because of the boost it could bring U.S. exporters. Others, like Democratic Representative Louise Slaughter, oppose it because of concerns about labor laws and tax havens in Panama.
Obama administration officials have sent conflicting signals on trade. Initially, they said they were working hard on readying the Panama deal for Congress.
Then they indicated last month the Panama deal would wait until Obama outlined a new trade policy framework, but did not say when that would be.
Baucus, whose committee would have to approve the agreement, said on Friday he was surprised to read reports the White House was not expected to send the Panama deal to Congress until legislation to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system passes the House and Senate.
That could push back work on the Panama deal until autumn. Democrats hope to vote on healthcare reform by the end of July, before an August recess, but have no guarantees of that.
"What’s going on here? Are those reports true, or not true?" Baucus demanded at a hearing on the nomination of Miriam Sapiro to be deputy U.S. trade representative.
He also complained that "to my knowledge, the administration has not yet consulted with this Congress, let alone this committee, on this new trade policy framework."
Sapiro promised that if confirmed, she would consult with lawmakers "as much as you would like," but she provided no timetable for sending the Panama deal to Congress or the other trade pacts with Colombia and South Korea.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)