Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (left) favors including the Trade Adjustment Assistance measure on the South Korea agreement, but ranking member Orrin Hatch said adding TAA to the pact would create a bad precedent.
If it weren’t for one nagging issue, the fight over three pending free-trade agreements would be the debate of the summer.
But that one little matter — an unprecedented showdown between Congress and the White House over the nation’s debt limit — has many of the pivotal players on trade occupied with budget politics, leaving K Street scrambling to ensure that the South Korea, Panama and Colombia pacts don’t wither.
The trade fight itself is not free of its own partisan rancor as Members of Congress and the White House negotiate a deal to provide billions of dollars in federal benefits to people who lose jobs as a consequence of free trade. The talks have been further complicated by a disagreement in the Senate over parliamentary procedure for how that measure, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, should be considered.
“The principals for the trade deals are also the principals for the debt debate. ... I would hope that they can walk and chew gum at the same time because they have to do both,” said Tami Overby, vice president of Asia for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is behind a huge push on behalf of all three deals.
The chamber this week launched its latest round of advertisements to keep the pressure on Members to pass the South Korea deal. It’s a pivotal time for the pacts because the Obama administration has indicated it wants to send the deals to Congress for consideration this week. Overby said the online effort targets 14 states and 5.8 million people.
Like other interests pushing for the three pacts, the chamber’s lobbyists are a constant presence on Capitol Hill this week. “We have really got to pull out all the stops now,” Overby said. “The coalition’s Hill activities have really been ramped up because we cannot let people’s attention slip now.”
Terry Holt, a former aide to Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) who is now a partner at the public affairs firm HDMK, called the trade pacts winners for both sides of the aisle. And as he works on behalf of the government of Panama, he said he will continue that message on Capitol Hill.
“Trade with these three countries presents opportunities for the American economy,” Holt said.
He conceded that the debt crisis has taken away attention from the trade deals, but he said they will win out. “The debt ceiling debate is sucking all the oxygen out of the political debate on Capitol Hill, but that doesn’t mean we won’t do these trade deals,” Holt said.