It could be more than a year before US free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia come up for a vote in Congress, a Democratic supporter of the pacts said.
“I do think at some point we’ll have to look at these deals again,” Rep. Joseph Crowley told Reuters after a speech at a global service industry meeting.
But “it’s not clear yet” whether the White House will send the agreements to Congress before the November 2010 congressional elections, Crowley said.
The administration of former President George W. Bush negotiated all three pacts but was unable to persuade the Democratic-controlled Congress to approve them.
President Barack Obama sided with labor and other opponents of the pacts during last year’s presidential campaign.
Since taking office, Obama has promised to work with the three countries and Congress to win approval of the pacts.
But his administration has spent most of its political capital and energy on domestic initiatives.
That includes healthcare reform, which US Trade Representative Ron Kirk called a “trade priority” because he said it would help US businesses and workers compete internationally.
Obama’s congressional agenda includes climate change legislation and financial regulatory reform, both of which could occupy Congress well into 2010.
Many believe the closer it gets to next year’s election, the less likely Obama is to send the trade pacts to Congress and trigger a divisive vote among members of his own party.
Inaction on the three trade pacts comes at a time when the Obama administration is seen overseas as dragging its feet in the eight-year-old Doha round of world trade talks.
“America sooner rather than later has to signal that it is engaged,” said Sergio Marchi, a former Canadian trade negotiator now at the International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development in Geneva.
Right now the long running Doha talks are on “a stationary bicycle—sweating a lot, but moving nowhere,” Marchi said.
To get the talks moving, Washington needs to spell out what it doesn’t like about what is now on the table and what it still needs from others to reach a deal, he said.
Every day that passes reduces the chance of reaching a deal in 2010, as Obama and other leaders of the Group of 20 countries recently pledged, Marchi said.
Former US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said she believed Obama will run “an extremely active administration on trade” once he finishes with other priorities.
A push from the White House is definitely needed to get trade deals through Congress, she said.
“There is no major trade agreement ... that can withstand the political pressures absent firm presidential leadership. If it isn’t a priority there, it won’t be a priority whatever else you do,” Barshefsky said. (Reuters)