Feb. 13, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

No One Wants to Tout Free-Trade Agreements

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor briefly praised the free-trade pacts Tuesday but focused on the GOP’s regulatory agenda and the president’s jobs bill.

Republicans and Democrats could be using this week’s likely passage of a series of trade deals as a rare victory for bipartisanship in a decidedly partisan era in American politics.

But instead, both parties appear to be having difficulty tooting their horns, thanks in large part to the very toxic environment that has choked out comity for much of the year.

“Republicans don’t want to give the president a victory, Democrats are split and everyone is distracted by other things,” one senior Democratic aide said, summing up the lack of enthusiasm surrounding the trade bills.

The House is poised to approve the free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea today, with the Senate likely to follow suit in short order, as the Senate Finance Committee approved the deals Tuesday. The movement comes ahead of a visit by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who will address a joint session of Congress on Thursday.

The votes also come after months of bipartisan negotiations and remarkably little wrangling among Congressional leaders who have criticized one another over nearly every other economic measure this year.

The cooperation can hardly be overstated. The deals were initially negotiated by the administration of George W. Bush but quickly became political footballs, getting caught up in a broader fight over Trade Adjustment Assistance and disputes that include concerns over violence against labor leaders (Colombia), access to automobile and beef markets (South Korea), and banking secrecy (Panama).

While business groups applaud Congress’ likely approval of the measures, which are also part of President Barack Obama’s jobs agenda, leaders on Capitol Hill have had a tough time staying focused on the topic.

“These bills are two and a half years in the waiting from this administration, and I’m glad they are finally sending these up,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said at his weekly briefing with reporters Tuesday. Instead, Cantor trained more of his focus on the GOP’s regulatory agenda and Obama’s jobs bill. Still, the Virginia Republican noted, “There is the potential for the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs, a quarter of a million jobs” through the trade agreements.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer didn’t offer much more at his own gathering with reporters. The Maryland Democrat predicted the deals “will pass with bipartisan support” but chose instead to blast Republicans for not doing more to push a jobs agenda.

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