House Dems look to tie trade deals to NAFTA

"Based on the myth that there is some sort of world free market, they call these deals 'free trade agreements,' but there is nothing free about them," said Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) during debate on the South Korea FTA. "These NAFTA-type deals are not free to our workers, who will lose their jobs because of them."

These arguments are a stinging reminder of the deep anti-trade sentiment within President Obama's own party, and are meant to attack Obama's decision to send the deals to Congress for passage. They are also a reminder that Obama pledged to renegotiate NAFTA to improve its labor and environmental provisions.

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While the renegotiation of NAFTA does not appear to be on Obama's radar any longer, a few senior House Democrats on Tuesday night reminded the rank and file that the FTAs that will be approved today are very different from the NAFTA agreement that Democrats opposed, since they include language that improved their labor and environment language.

These Democrats also noted that these improvements were made under an agreement reached during the George W. Bush administration.

"The last administration finally accepted our demands on labor, the environment and other issues, such as access to medicine," Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said during debate on the Panama agreement. "This agreement includes all of those."

House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) was more explicit, arguing several times that the deals were not like NAFTA at all.

"What we said to the Panamanians was, bring your laws up to international standards," Levin said. "That's exactly what they did. This is the opposite, in that respect, of NAFTA and CAFTA. So it is not accurate to say this is a NAFTA-type agreement. It simply is not."

Levin made similar remarks regarding South Korea.

"This is really kind of an anti-NAFTA agreement," he said. "The labor standards are the new standards that we put into Peru and are incorporated here."

Many Democrats are expected to support the Panama and South Korea FTA for these reasons, in addition to Panama's recent acceptance of an open tax regime and South Korea's recent acceptance of language the U.S. hopes will lead to more U.S. auto exports to that country. But most Democrats are still expected to oppose the FTA with Colombia due to ongoing concerns about what they say is ongoing violence against union workers in that country.

Even Levin said he would oppose the Colombia deal.

"Where workers have no rights, increased trade with another country can work against us and can work against the other country," he said. "Colombia, in that regard, has presented a special case. A violation of basic rights has gone on for decades, and not only those violations of laws, but violation of persons, violence and death."

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