President Barack Obama is putting off sending final legislation on three key free trade agreements to Capitol Hill until September because of the protracted talks over raising the nation's debt limit, two people familiar with the discussions said Wednesday.
Obama aides were ready to send the trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to lawmakers this week, the two said. But congressional leaders from both parties asked the administration to delay the agreements until after Congress returns from its August recess. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the delay has not been formally announced.
Obama has been a vocal supporter of the trade deals, touting them as job creators that could give the economy a much-needed jolt. The business community and most lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have also rallied around the agreements.
The White House said Wednesday it was still committed to finalizing the free trade agreements, known as FTAs, as well as a retraining assistance package for American workers displaced by trade. That program is known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA.
"At this time, we are still in active discussions with Congress regarding the process for proceeding with the three FTAs and TAA as soon as possible," White House spokesman Matt Vogel said.
The White House has insisted that lawmakers pass TAA alongside the trade deals. But Republicans oppose the administration efforts to link the retraining assistance program to the pacts. Even if the administration had been able to send the trade deals to Congress this summer, it is unclear whether there would have been a clear path to passage given the disagreements on TAA.
But the future for the trade deals only becomes more uncertain this fall, as political considerations could make it difficult for Obama to push for their passage heading into an election year. Two core constituencies for Obama, unions and labor leaders, are largely opposed to the free trade agreements
All three trade deals were signed during the George W. Bush administration, but none of them advanced in the Democratic-controlled Congress.
The Obama administration moved to renegotiate key elements of all three deals, gaining commitments from South Korea to improve access to U.S. autos, from Panama to change laws that fostered tax havens, and from Colombia to improve its labor rights record.
Julie Pace can be reached at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC