Trade official Kirk demurs on timeline for Colombia, Panama trade deals

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk repeatedly refused to commit to a timeline for the pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama on Wednesday, saying the Obama administration “will not sign agreements for agreements’ sake.”

In his first appearance before the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Kirk stressed that the Obama administration is working hard to iron out the kinks in the trade deals. He said the pacts could be submitted for congressional approval later this year. 

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“The president has made one thing abundantly clear: we will not sign agreements for agreements’ sake. They must be enforceable and of the highest standard, in the interests of our workers, farmers and businesses,” Kirk said in his opening remarks.

Republicans on the committee were frustrated by Kirk’s refusal to commit to a timeline for submitting the trade agreements to Capitol Hill. Many demanded to know what is holding up the agreements.

“The time for generalities has passed,” said Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the Ways and Means chairman. “We need specifics. … These [trade deals] have languished long enough.”

Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) submitted into the record a series of statements made by Kirk and others in the administration over the past two years promising progress on the stalled trade deals. But with unions and several Democrats opposed to the agreements as negotiated by the George W. Bush administration, President Obama has held off on submitting them to Congress. 

“How much longer do we have to wait for the Colombia agreement?” Herger asked. 

“Hopefully, it won’t be much longer. We share your concern,” Kirk replied. 

The trade representative said the president has directed him “to immediately intensify engagement” with the Colombian and Panamanian governments in order to work out the remaining issues with the trade deals. 

Kirk said he is sending a team of his aides to Colombia next week to work on the deal. 

Colombia’s agreement has been held up by concerns about violence against union members, while tax haven issues have delayed Panama’s.

Another obstacle for Panama had been the election of Pedro Miguel Gonzalez as head of the country’s National Assembly. Gonzalez, who has since left that post, was charged in a U.S. court with killing an American soldier.

Republicans did praise Kirk for his role in renegotiating the trade agreement with South Korea, which Kirk said the president plans to submit to Congress in the next few weeks in hopes of passing it this spring. 

But the completion of the Korea deal was not enough to satisfy the GOP members. 

“How about getting all three of them?” Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) quizzed Kirk. 

The inaction on the Colombia and Panama trade deals could stall other parts of the Obama administration’s trade agenda. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), for example, said Congress would not sign off on permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Russia — a White House goal this year — until members have voted on the three trade agreements. 

“There’s virtually no chance that the Russia PTNR will move ahead of Colombia and Panama,” said Brady, chairman of the important House Trade subcommittee.

Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s ranking member, defended Kirk and said that he had been specific in what concerns the Obama administration had about the pending trade deals. 

Levin was in Colombia last month as part of a congressional delegation trip. He said the country still has problems with labor rights violations and violence against unions but that he was impressed with the country’s new president.

“The new Santos administration has now articulated a different approach from its predecessor that provides an opportunity for serious discussions between the two governments on these concerns,” Levin said in his opening remarks. 

Despite Levin looking to work with the new Colombian government, many Democrats will likely vote against the trade deals due to strong labor opposition. 

“I’m not sure the leaders, even the new leaders, are ready to walk the walk. There are too many killings. There are too many people who have disappeared,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).