By Ian Swanson - 12/11/09 05:48 PM EST
House Republicans on Friday urged the Obama administration to press forward with three stalled trade agreements that have divided Democrats.
The Republicans said they had been encouraged by a White House meeting on Wednesday where President Barack Obama provided a “positive outlook" on advancing the deals negotiated by the Bush administration.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) signed the letter along with House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and Reps. Dave Camp (Mich.) and Mike Pence (Ind.).
The three trade deals mentioned in the letter are with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. All three are vociferously opposed by labor unions, particularly the agreement with Colombia, which unions insist has not done enough to prosecute those responsible for violence against union organizers.
The Democratic Party has been deeply divided on the issue of trade, with nearly half the caucus signing legislation that would call for the renegotiation of existing trade deals. Other Democrats, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), have spoken out in favor of moving the deals.
Trade has been pushed to the sideline this year as the House and Senate worked to pass healthcare reform. The troubled economy, particularly double-digit unemployment, has also made it difficult to consider trade deals, though supporters of the agreements argue the deals would create U.S. jobs.
Business groups in Washington have been waiting, so far in vain, for a speech from Obama that would outline his administration’s objectives on trade.
Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, also pressed Obama on his policy during the White House meeting on Wednesday, saying the president is dithering on the matter.
“There’s too much hesitation and delay on this issue,” Grassley said in a release about the meeting. He went on to tell Obama he was concerned that the European Union was signing an agreement with South Korea that would give Europe a leg up on the United States.
“While we’re sitting on the sidelines, Europe has negotiated with South Korea and is in a position to go ahead and take the opportunities for exports that the United States will miss,” he said.
Grassley told the Mason City Globe Gazette that Obama said he knew the country needed to expand trade.
“I think he was trying to say by inference that it’s pretty hard to get it done politically right now, but that’s where he needs to spend some political capital,” Grassley told the Gazette.
The White House meeting with congressional leaders was focused on jobs, an issue expected to dominate the political landscape next year.
Both the House and Senate are working on new jobs bills, and Obama this week endorsed a new jobs bill to be paid for in part by money left over from the $700 billion bailout of the nation’s financial sector.
In their letter, the House Republicans said moving the trade deals would create jobs and urged Obama to promote the agreements in his State of the Union address next month.