By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, March 9 – U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk spent over three hours Wednesday trying to deflect bipartisan demands that the administration fast track all three pending free trade agreements as a single package. Kirk's repeated message was that by resisting such pressure over the past two years, the administration won a far better deal in the South Korean Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) which the administration is ready to finalize.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk at the Senate Finance Committee hearing Wednesday on administration trade policies.  

In an often combative Senate Finance Committee hearing, Kirk urged senators to work with the administration on KORUS ratification to get it completed by July 1st. But Committee Chair Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, insisted that they won't support KORUS ratification unless is is coupled with fast tracking FTAs with Colombia and Panama. Baucus added that unless the administration packages the three FTAs together, he won't support the administration's push to renew the Trade Adjustment Assistance program which provides re-training to workers who lose their jobs due to trade agreements.

Baucus was unbending, insisting that “we must approve all three agreements this year.” Hatch added his own concern, explaining that despite Kirk's assurances that the administration is committed to having all three pending FTAs completed this year, “I don’t believe the President will ever act on the Colombia and Panama agreements unless these agreements move with Korea.” Rather than a being a matter of resolving remaining labor rights and environmental concerns as Kirk claimed, Hatch said “The problem is a lack of political will and a lack of political courage.”

Hatch concluded with a direct challenge to Kirk: “If the President ignores the will of Congress and sends the Korea agreement without Colombia and Panama, I will do everything I can to make sure that those two agreements are considered at the same time as Korea. . . If we are to serve the national interest and get these two agreements approved, Congress must act with or without Presidential leadership.”

Kirk's response was that with the prospect of boosting U.S. exports by $10 billion a year and adding 70,000 U.S. jobs, Congress needs to work with the administration to ratify KORUS by July first. He also assured both Baucus and Hatch that the administration will continue to work to remove South Korea's remaining barriers to U.S. beef exports.

But Kirk wouldn't back down on the need to improve the Colombia FTA, just as the Korean deal was improved through tough negotiations. He promised that following major market-opening victories in 2010, the administration is aggressively pursuing “a job-focused, comprehensive trade policy that benefits American businesses, workers, farmers and ranchers.” Rather than deliver the three pending FTAs as a single package, he said the administration is determined to resolve “outstanding concerns” with the Colombia and Panama FTAs “to move those agreements to Congress as they become ready.”

Kirk reported progress, noting that “Panama has already begun reforming its labor regime to achieve consistency with the pending agreement and has also taken significant steps to achieve greater tax transparency.” But he said there are “remaining steps needed to resolve issues on labor and tax.” Without agreeing to a date certain, he said “We are on track to resolve the issues this year and will send the agreement to Congress once that is complete.”

Kirk claimed similar progress in working with Colombia: “Together, we are working without delay to assess what we can do on issues regarding laws and practices affecting the protection of internationally-recognized labor rights, as well as issues concerning violence against labor leaders and the prosecution of the perpetrators. The Obama administration and the Santos administration have a shared commitment to protect labor rights and workers from violence. I am committed to working with you to address the concerns identified this year and to prepare the agreement for congressional consideration immediately thereafter.”

Saying the administration “won't compromise” on core values, Kirk stated that “we will not sign agreements for agreements’ sake. They must be enforceable and of the highest standard, in the interests of our workers, farmers, ranchers and businesses.”

Questioned by senators about Chinese currency manipulation and intellectual property theft and about Japanese barriers to U.S. beef, Kirk said the administration is addressing such issues aggressively. He said the U.S. is working with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Doha talks to secure greater access for U.S. exports to Asia which he called “the world’s most dynamic region.” He added that “We will continue our efforts to bring Russia into the WTO, including work with Congress this year to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations, so that American firms can fully benefit when Russia has the responsibilities as well as the rights of a true trade partner.”

Hatch charged the administration with “double standards” if it delays the Colombia FTA over labor rights issues while supporting Russia's joining the WTO despite serious labor rights issues in Russia.

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