Senators raise pressure on trade deals

Key senators ramped up the pressure Thursday on U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to move forward with stalled trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.

In a letter to Kirk, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the panel’s ranking member, asked that the trade representative’s staff hold immediate technical discussions on legislation implementing the agreements. 

In making the request, the two senators are asking that the administration formally start the process for proceeding to votes on the two bills.

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The move follows Hatch’s threat at a Wednesday hearing with Kirk to hold up the South Korean deal unless the administration also moves forward with the Colombia and Panama agreements.

“We believe that beginning this process will help remove doubt from our trading partners that Congress and the administration are committed to moving these agreements expeditiously once you resolve the outstanding issues,” the senators said in their letter. “And we believe that it will empower your negotiators to complete their work on outstanding issues as soon as possible.”

Kirk said Wednesday that the administration is committed to moving all three deals, but did not specify when the Obama administration expects to finish talks with Panama and Colombia. Labor groups oppose all three trade agreements, but are most vociferous in criticizing the deal with Colombia, which unions say has not done enough to stop violence against labor organizers.

In their letter, Baucus and Hatch said they were “disappointed” by the lack of the details given by Kirk.

Separately on Thursday, Kirk told reporters that he would not “telegraph” when ongoing talks for pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama would finish.

“I think I know a little bit about negotiation — sometimes putting out targets and deadlines helps you. Sometimes they don’t,” Kirk said at a lunch hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “We are making great progress with Panama and Colombia but there are some issues that we need to resolve. … I’m not willing to telegraph what we’re going to do, at the end of the day.”

Kirk told reporters that the Obama administration is working just as diligently to resolve outstanding issues with those trade deals as it has done with the Korea trade deal.

Republicans have threatened not to act on the Korea deal unless all three pending trade agreements are sent to Congress by the administration.

“That is going to be their choice,” Kirk said about the GOP threats. He emphasized that Congress should do its job and pass the Korea deal.

While President Obama won a huge victory last year by concluding negotiations with South Korea, his trade agenda has hit a few obstacles in recent weeks.

Congress failed to pass a trade adjustment assistance program that helps workers who lost their jobs due to global trade deals. Congress also did not extend the Andean Trade Preference Act, which grants duty-free access to exports from several South American countries. Kirk said lawmakers should approve those programs as soon as possible.

Kirk is considered a possible successor to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who Obama has nominated to serve as U.S. ambassador to China. Kirk said he would not comment on the administration’s personnel issues to reporters.

A former Dallas mayor who lost to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in the 2002 Senate election, Kirk also said he does not want to run again for office. In 2012, Texans will choose a successor to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R), who decided against a run for reelection.

“No. Nyet. Nada,” said Kirk, who said he has “no desire” to run again.

Kirk also noted that with trade on the forefront in Washington, he is enjoying his position in the administration, and that he will serve there as long as Obama will have him.

“I will be here until the president tells me to go home,” Kirk said.