The Obama administration is coming under increasing pressure from frustrated pro-trade lawmakers in the House and Senate to move ahead on three key trade deals.
United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk's testimony to the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday comes more than a week after the release of the administration's 2011 trade agenda, a plan that was met with a cool reception from trade proponents because of its vague language on the Colombia and Panama free-trade agreements.
Obama has called for a third trade agreement with South Korea to move forward, but has been non-committal on Colombia and Panama, citing concerns over issues such as tax transparency and labor conditions.
The Senate Finance Committee's March 9 hearing is a key component of Chairman Max Baucus' strategy to try to push the White House into setting definitive timelines for the Colombia and Panama trade agreements, according to sources close to Montana Democrat.
Baucus led a delegation of businessmen from his state to Colombia late last month to meet with local officials and discuss the progress they have made to address the administration's concern over the country's human rights record and labor conditions.
Free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama have languished since then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) shelved them during the waning months of the Bush administration.
Last month, Baucus and Finance ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) sent a letter to Kirk requesting that he testify in front of the committee on when the trade agreements with Colombia and Panama will move forward.
"We welcome your agreement to testify before the Senate Finance Committee on March 9, 2011," Baucus and Hatch wrote in a joint letter on Feb. 14. "At that time, we expect that you will come prepared to (1) identify specifically any additional steps that the Administration believes Panama or Colombia should take; and (2) provide a clear and expeditious timetable for moving both agreements through the U.S. Congress."
The letter pointed to Kirk's February testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee, during which Kirk said the president had directed him "to immediately intensify engagement with Colombia and Panama to resolve outstanding issues" so they can move forward.
A spokeswoman for Kirk also pointed to the February House hearing when asked whether the requested timeline would be provided to Baucus and Hatch.
"Ambassador Kirk is looking forward to testifying before the Senate Finance Committee and sharing as much detail as he can about our intensified engagement with Panama and Colombia and our efforts to resolve outstanding issues related to the agreements," wrote Carol Guthrie, the Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Public and Media Affairs. "As he said to the House Ways and Means Committee on February 9, we are working closely with Congress to determine appropriate next steps."
Baucus and other pro-trade Democrats hope once the trade agreements are sent to the Hill they will sail through both chambers, given the trade-friendlier Republican majority in the House.
In the House, Obama's lack of action on trade has also frustrated lawmakers, particularly Republicans.
Last week, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) dismissed the administration's agenda as inadequate.
"The President's Agenda fails to lay out a concrete plan for generating good U.S. jobs by advancing our pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama," Camp said in a statement. "Despite repeated bipartisan requests, the Administration has once again declined to clearly identify the outstanding issues, reasonable steps that can be taken to address those issues, and a timeframe for resolution."
The powerful Republican also criticized a lack of urgency in passing trade deals.
"The President's Agenda shows no sense of urgency, even while acknowledging a clear reason for urgency – that U.S. businesses, workers, farmers, and ranchers are increasingly disadvantaged as Colombia and Panama implement trade agreements with other countries. As I have said repeatedly, I want to see all three agreements considered by July 1."
Likewise, Trade Subcommittee Chairman Kevin Brady (Texas) also questioned Obama's commitment to free trade.
"I am puzzled why the White House continues to ignore clear bipartisan calls from Congress to promptly identify and address any outstanding issues related to the Colombia and Panama trade agreements. The time for action is now. The continued delays are inexcusable," Brady said.
Obama is also under pressure from the House's freshmen class of conservatives.
Last week, 67 of the 87 freshmen signed a letter to the White House calling on Obama to immediately begin work on moving the Colombia, Panama and South Korean trade agreements.
In the letter, which was spearheaded by Republican Reps. Tom Reed (N.Y.) and Rick Berg (N.D.), the freshmen wrote, "We are committed to working with you to develop a comprehensive trade agenda. We believe the first step in that process is to move forward on our agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea without delay. Our economy and our job market cannot afford anything less than swift and decisive action."
The interest in trade issues is unusual for freshmen, GOP aides said, noting that it is particularly rare for conservative newcomers to the chamber to back free-trade agreements as aggressively as this year's class has.
Much of the 1994 class of GOP revolutionaries came into office in part on a platform that was harshly critical of the North American Free-Trade Agreement, which had been passed after a long and bitter fight between the Clinton administration and traditional Republicans on one side and conservative and progressive Democratic opponents on the other.
Part of the reason for their support, aides said, stems from the rural nature of many of their districts, all of which have come to rely on export of goods as a prime source of income.
Additionally, aides pointed to Rules Chairman David Dreier (Calif.) as a contributing factor, noting that he had worked with freshmen to help educate them on the economic and job-creation issues related to the deals.
In a statement, Dreier hailed the freshmen. "This letter sends a strong signal that the new Members of the 112th Congress are firmly committed to economic growth through trade ... This new class of Members stands with the majority of the House of Representatives who wants to work with the President to make this happen," Dreier said.