Colombia: Jobless rate could help trade deal

The Colombian ambassador to the United States said the rising unemployment rate could help end the trade deal logjam on Capitol Hill.

Ambassador Gabriel Silva told reporters at a lunch hosted by the National Foreign Trade Council Friday that May’s disconcerting jobs report has led to lawmakers being more open to discussing renewal of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program. 

Some Republicans have balked at approving the expanded version of the program, which the White House has requested before submitting pending trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea to Congress.

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“I feel there is more an open attitude to discussing the TAA, to be more precise,” Silva said.

The trade aid program is designed to fund job-training programs and healthcare benefits for workers who lost their jobs because of trade. The assistance initiative could be an easier sell in Congress after last month’s jobs report, which showed that only 54,000 jobs were created in May as the unemployment rate climbed to 9.1 percent.

Silva, a former Colombian defense minster, told reporters that Congress approving the trade deals with his country and others would boost the United States’ struggling job market.

“I think Capitol Hill is hearing from many, many partners that delaying all the [trade agreements] is not good, particularly when it comes to U.S. jobs,” Silva said. “This is not theoretical. This is real.”

Silva said it is vital that the Obama administration and Capitol Hill move on the trade deals this year. On Thursday, Colombia announced that its trade deal with Canada would go into force on August 15. That could cause U.S. businesses to lose more market share as their products will still be slapped with higher tariffs than their competitors unless the trade deal is approved.

“The U.S. could be left out of the market. Competitors are very aggressive,” Silva said. “The patience of the Colombian people is thinning.”

First negotiated in 2006, the Colombia trade deal has hit many bumps on the road to possible passage this summer.

On Monday, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said that the country had met a second phase of milestones outlined under a labor action plan designed to improve Colombia’s labor rights record. On Thursday, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), chairman of the House Trade Subcommittee, said the House is moving towards a mock markup schedule of all three trade deals next week, leading to likely votes in July.

Opposition to the trade deal, however, remains strong among some lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, launched a campaign against the Colombia trade deal this week due to the country’s poor record of violence against trade unionists. Several Colombian union members were in Washington visiting lawmakers, and some Democrats are expected to vote against the trade deal.

Silva said he is confident that his country’s trade deal will pass Congress. He told reporters that “the champagne is in the fridge” for him to celebrate passage of Colombia’s trade deal.

“If the vote was today, we would have a significant majority,” Silva said.