Senate Republicans on Monday raised the stakes in their showdown with President Barack Obama over trade policy, saying they will block the confirmation of a new Commerce secretary until the administration submits to Congress three pending free trade agreements.
The administration says it is ready to submit the trade agreement with South Korea to Congress for ratification, but says it needs a little more time for the other two, with Colombia and Panama. Republicans in both the House and Senate have said that is unacceptable, and they would not act on the South Korea deal unless all three pacts are submitted as a package.
In the latest move Monday, 44 Senate Republicans sent Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a letter initiated by Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio saying that until the president submits all three agreements "we will use all the tools at our disposal to force action, including withholding support for any nominee for Commerce secretary and any trade-related nominees."
Obama last week nominated current Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to be the next ambassador to China. He has yet to name Locke's successor.
"This idea is born out of frustration," said Portman, who served as U.S. trade representative during the George W. Bush administration.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said ratifying the three trade agreements would be the quickest and easiest ways to create jobs and he was "perplexed" by the administration's "lack of willingness to initiate the process."
The Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus of Montana, said approving the agreements "will boost U.S. exports, improve our economy and create jobs here at home." But he said the Republican tactic of blocking nominations "is a diversion from our goal and is simply not the way to ensure their passage."
All three agreements were signed during the Bush administration, but Obama has taken a go-slow approach to sending them to the Senate. The administration indicated that the South Korea deal was ready after completing further negotiations with the Koreans at the end of last year to open their auto market to U.S. exports.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told the Senate Finance Committee last week that they had nearly wrapped up work with the other two but gave no date for their submission to Congress.
Colombia has been the more troublesome, with Democrats, organized labor and human rights groups saying that Colombia must first improve its record of violence against labor leaders.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, said his fear was that the administration would "let these two agreements wither on the vine," adding "we will not allow that to happen."
He said that without completion of the agreements, $11 billion worth of U.S. exports to South Korea, $3 billion to Colombia and $1 billion to Panama would gradually be ceded to other countries.
The top two trade lawmakers in the House, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan and Kevin Brady of Texas, that panel's trade subcommittee chairman, praised the Senate move, saying the "White House's refusal to act on all three makes no sense." They said that if Obama "sent all three agreements, they would pass with bipartisan majorities."