President Obama and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli discussed a new trade agreement Thursday that the White House hopes will win quick congressional approval.
The deal is one of three the Obama administration has been working on as part of the president's push to double U.S. exports.
The White House inherited the three trade agreements — including deals with South Korea and Colombia — from the Bush administration. And at first, President Obama had reservations about all of them.
Late last year, though, South Korea agreed to revise its treaty, offering better terms for U.S. automakers. And this month, Panama agreed to provide stronger labor protections, and to help the U.S. crack down on tax evaders. As a result, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk says the administration is now ready to move forward with those two deals.
"These are good, solid agreements now," says Kirk. "They each have the opportunity to add billions of dollars to our exports and help support thousands of new jobs at a time when millions of Americans are still desperate to find employment."
'We've Got To Have A Level Playing Field'
The Colombian trade agreement has also moved forward, though not as far. Protection of labor rights is the biggest stumbling block. Kirk says the Colombian government has agreed to a plan to improve labor protections, and that could pave the way for a deal down the road.
Colombia is one of the biggest markets in Latin America — so would-be exporters like wheat farmer Gordon Stoner are anxious to see that deal move forward.
"Exports are just critical to my profitability and continued operation of the farm," he says.
Stoner farms about 11,000 acres in northeastern Montana, just a few miles from the Canadian border. Canada has its own trade deal with Colombia, so Stoner's northern neighbors will soon be selling their wheat there duty free, while he and other American farmers are facing tariffs of 15 percent.
"I'm ready to compete with any farmer anywhere," he says, "but we've got to have a level playing field. And if one country is able to import duty free and we're not, we're at a disadvantage right out of the gate."
U.S. manufacturers could be at a similar loss. That's why John Murphy, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wants the White House and Congress to act quickly on all three of the free trade deals.
"On trade, when you stand still, you fall behind," he says.
A 'Respectful Disagreement' With Unions
President Obama's efforts to move forward with the trade agreements put him at odds with some of his traditional supporters in organized labor. Thea Lee of the AFL-CIO says her union has a "respectful disagreement" with the White House about the potential for economic benefits. She says the Colombian pact is particularly controversial.
"Colombia has one of the worst records in the world in terms of violence against trade unionists," she says. "There have been almost 3,000 murders of trade unionists over the last 20 years or so, and there are very few people in jail."
Lee says the Obama administration should take its time and make sure Colombia's new action plan on labor rights is really working before signing any long-term trade deal.
House Republicans are already growing impatient. They want all three trade agreements considered together this summer. But Michigan Rep. Sandy Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, says only the Korean and Panama deals are ripe for congressional action.
"Colombia is a work in progress," Levin says. "And so it's a mistake to tie them together. Each of these should be on its own merits."
Kirk says he understands Republicans' desire for fast action on all of the trade pacts. But he warns that moving too quickly could backfire, further eroding Americans' confidence in the benefits of trade.
"Many Americans, frankly, still believe that trade is not a vehicle by which the United States can compete and win in terms of job creation," he says.
Kirk thinks the administration can change those attitudes — but only if it's allowed to push the trade agreements on its own timetable.