Lawmaker Moves to Delay Free-Trade Pacts


The Wall Street Journal
Americas News
By Josh Mitchell
April 23, 2009

WASHINGTON — A Democratic senator from Ohio is moving to further tie up pending free-trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea, setting up a potential clash between President Barack Obama and some members of his party.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, a free-trade skeptic, said Wednesday he will soon introduce legislation that would effectively delay congressional consideration of the proposed free-trade pacts drafted under President George W. Bush. The Obama administration has indicated it is moving forward on the Colombia deal and is optimistic about the pending agreement with Panama.

Speaking before the Washington International Trade Association at George Washington University, Mr. Brown said any effort to finalize the pending agreements would be a continuation of failed Bush policies, and he warned of opposition in Congress.

"It’s hard for anyone to argue our trade policy is working," Mr. Brown said, pointing to the U.S. trade deficit. He called for revamping U.S. trade policy, adding, "No other country practices trade according to this fundamentalist, economist philosophy" instead of pursuing policies that he said advance the country’s economic and security interests.

Mr. Brown’s comments come days after Mr. Obama dispatched U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to meet with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to discuss U.S. concerns over Colombia’s treatment of labor leaders. That issue is seen as a main roadblock in efforts to win U.S. congressional support for the deal.

U.S. officials have also expressed optimism about the pending agreement with Panama, with an administration official saying recently that minor labor issues seem resolvable. The proposed South Korean agreement still faces strong opposition from segments of the auto industry.

Free trade is a sensitive issue, particularly among labor leaders and lawmakers from manufacturing states that have seen jobs move overseas.

Mr. Brown, among several lawmakers elected in 2006 while campaigning as skeptics of the Bush trade agenda, said he would introduce legislation to put pending trade deals on hold until a federal commission and the Government Accountability Office studied the benefits of existing trade policies. He said his intent isn’t to delay the pending deals but rather to ensure that decisions on trade are "evidence-based."

Asked whether his effort would ultimately prevent the current Congress from taking up the free-trade pacts, Mr. Brown said, "I don’t know the answer to that," before adding, "What’s the rush?"

"Prove to me these trade agreements are working," he said.

Mr. Brown said he met with Mr. Kirk Tuesday but didn’t get a sense of the administration’s stance on many issues, including possible timing for getting the deals approved.

Mr. Brown added he didn’t know the deals’ prospects in Congress but that serious concerns remain among some lawmakers. He said he expected the strongest opposition to the deals would come in the House.

Mr. Brown also called on the Obama administration to review the North American Free Trade Agreement. Mr. Obama earlier this month declined to raise the question of renegotiating Nafta.

Write to Josh Mitchell at [email protected]

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