AS/COA Online - GOP Senators Threaten to Block Commerce Nominee over Stalled FTAs

Senate Republicans ratcheted up pressure for passage of Colombia and Panama trade pacts this week with a letter warning they would potentially filibuster a commerce secretary appointment. In a March 14 letter delivered to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the 44 GOP legislators wrote: “Until the president submits both agreements to Congress for approval and commits to signing implementing legislation into law, we will use all the tools at our disposal to force action, including withholding support for any nominee for commerce secretary and any trade-related nominees.” With U.S. President Barack Obama naming Commerce Secretary Gary Locke as the new ambassador to China, the White House will announce an appointee to head the Commerce Department to replace him. That nominee could face a challenge gaining approval if the Obama administration chooses not to seek approval of the Colombia and Panama deals at the same time as a South Korea deal.

The Colombia and Panama (FTAs) have been stalled since they were signed in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Obama has made a trade accord with South Korea—the biggest of the three deals in terms bilateral trade—a priority in terms of approval. Obama indicated in his last State of the Union address that he also intends to pursue passage of the two Latin American pacts.

But Republican Senators contend that the Oval Office isn’t moving fast enough, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pushing for the president to submit all three trade deals simultaneously. “We don’t intend to move forward with his nominations for the secretary of Commerce or any trade-related position that requires confirmation in the Senate until all three trade agreements are sent to the Senate and the House for consideration,” said McConnell at a news conference this week. “This was the best idea we’ve heard so far to give the president the kind of incentive he needs to do what he says he’s in favor of doing.”

Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), who led a trade mission to Colombia last month, has also urged passage of the trade deal and contended that approving the trade deal would support efforts to create U.S. jobs. He argued that the Republican tactic “is a diversion from our goal.” But, as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus last week called on U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to resolve outstanding issues holding up the Colombia and Panama deals. Kirk said in testimony to the committee that the administration seeks to address obstacles to the two deals, with the goal of concluding them this year. Legislative opponents in Congress argue that Colombia’s record on violence against union members must be addressed before that deals gains passage, although supporters contend that the economic growth that would come with the Colombia FTA would boost human rights in the Andean country. In an article for The Huffington Post, AS/COA’s Christopher Sabatini points out that union deaths have declined over time in Colombia while, at the same time, failure to pass the FTA has meant $800 million in losses for U.S. farmers since 2008.

Learn more

  • Read the latest issue of Americas Quarterly, covering market access in the Western Hemisphere, including a Charticle on free-trade and Congress..
  • March 14 letter from Senate Republicans requesting approval of Colombia and Panama FTA legislation.
  • March 9 testimony of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.