Business readies final lobbying blitz for three pending trade deals

President Obama’s coordinated push for congressional approval of long-stalled trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama will be backed by one of his biggest critics: the business community.

Lobbyists for Caterpillar, Citi and GE, as well as trade groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, will be among those throwing their weight behind efforts to pass the three deals this year.

The lobbying blitz comes after Obama this week defied his supporters in the labor movement and moved forward on the Colombia deal. Obama announced an action plan with the Colombian president Thursday to improve the country’s labor protections, but that was not enough to win union support. 

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Labor officials oppose the agreement because of Colombia’s poor record on protecting union leaders and members from violence.

Obama’s action on Colombia has created a path for the long-awaited trade deal’s approval.

Bill Lane, Caterpillar’s Washington director, said the president’s willingness to plow ahead on his trade agenda would win him new allies in Washington.  

“This is going to be a good capacity-building exercise for all of us because for the next three months, we all are going to be working hand in glove with the Republicans, the Hill Democrats and the administration,” Lane said. “I’m not saying we are all singing ‘Kumbaya,’ but we are starting to hum it.”

Others agree that the president working to pass trade deals has warmed relations between the White House and business. Speaking at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor on Friday, Tom Donohue, the Chamber’s president and CEO, said Obama being more open on trade has helped the relationship.

“We appreciate some of the things the president has done to change his song,” Donohue said.

Business lobbyists are working to have the three pending trade deals passed by Congress before the July 4 recess. That timeline seems on track for now.

Administration officials and K Street sources expect there will be an announcement on the Panama trade deal soon. The Korea agreement was renegotiated at the end of 2010, so Panama is the only agreement that is still being worked on.

Passing the trade deals also fits in with the Obama administration’s goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2014.

Lobbyists are looking for broad support from both parties on the trade deals. The Colombia deal could be the hardest of the three to pass with bipartisan support, given labor’s opposition.

“We have to make sure that none of these just squeak through. We have to send a message that trade matters,” said Laura Lane, managing director and head of international government affairs for Citi.

Lane of Caterpillar said it will take “a full-court press” to see all three agreements passed by Congress this summer.

“None of us are making vacation plans,” he said.

The Chamber is also anticipating an aggressive lobbying campaign in favor of the Colombia trade deal.

“We are going to put a lot of heat on this. It’s about jobs, jobs, jobs and economic growth. By the way, we’re coming up to the election. Everybody is interested in jobs, jobs, jobs and economic growth,” Donohue said.

Donohue said the president moving forward on trade shows that Obama has matured during his time in the White House.

“I think what we are having is a maturing of the president. It happens to all presidents. He is figuring out what he can do and he has got to get things in order because of the global demands on him and the global challenges,” Donohue said. “I don’t think he has made a philosophical shift in what he believes and who he is. I think he is accommodating himself to the most challenging job in the world.”