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Panama Tops List of Upcoming Trade Fights

A long-stalled free-trade agreement with Panama got a huge boost last week, business lobbyists pushing for the pact said. And as Congress begins a two-week recess, K Street plans to step up its grass-roots and inside-the-Beltway campaigns to urge Congressional approval of the Panama deal and two other agreements.

“What we have teed up here is we’re going to have the summer of trade,” said Christopher Wenk, a trade lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Over the Easter recess, we’re going to have two full weeks of outreach to Members and staff in their districts.”

And when Members return to D.C. in May, they can expect that trade will be a top agenda item. In addition to Panama, the Obama administration is preparing agreements with South Korea and Colombia.

The big development late last week came when the Panamanian government passed a tax measure that free-trade advocates called the last major hurdle for the agreement.

And sources said that over the next few weeks Panama, which already retains the public affairs firm HDMK, will be looking to add lobbying firepower to make sure the message gets to the Hill that the country has taken care of business back home.

“Panama has just approved an historic tax-information-exchange agreement with the U.S. and our economy continues to grow into one of the most competitive and dynamic in Latin America,” Demetrio Papadimitriu, minister of the presidency for the Republic of Panama, said in an emailed statement. “We are planning to have a very visible presence in Washington over the next few months to further make the case that passing the US-Panama trade agreement now would create jobs and opportunity in both countries.”

Already on the Panama team at HDMK are Terry Holt, who has close ties with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and Chad Kolton, a former Boehner aide who served as press secretary for the White House Office of Management and Budget during George W. Bush’s presidency.

According to HDMK’s disclosure filing with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, its team provides “public relations counsel … communications and media strategy” to the Panamanian government.

But the country’s brand-new  tax information exchange measure did nothing to quiet the critics of the Panama free-trade agreement.

Lori Wallach, director for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said the Panama law has “a loophole you can drive a truck through” and therefore would not stop tax cheating and money laundering. Wallach added that the Panama law would not automatically send tax and banking information to the IRS, but rather only when asked and even then “they can reject requests even by law enforcement.”

But Wallach said she and other anti-trade-pact advocates are mobilizing not only against Panama, but also against the South Korea and Colombia pacts.

“The fury level is enormous,” she said of the trio’s opponents. “The Obama administration has not addressed the substance of President Obama’s own criticisms as a candidate or Senator, but despite that, they’re going to try to shove these agreements through Congress.”

In pushing for the trade deals, corporate America and the Obama administration mostly are eyeing the same goal.

“The administration, like the business community, is very forward-leaning on free trade right now. People are singing from the same song sheet,” Wenk said.

Another top pro-trade lobbyist, Caterpillar’s Bill Lane, agreed that all three agreements are ready for action in the coming months.

“The goal of getting them done in June or July is a near-certainty now,” said Lane, whose company has focused on getting its employees to make the case to government officials.

Caterpillar workers wrote 30,025 letters supporting the agreements to the administration and Members of Congress, Lane said. And that effort of ginning up company support for the three pacts will continue, including upcoming Colombian coffee days in Caterpillar plants.

“This is by far the most successful grass-roots effort Caterpillar has ever undertaken,” Lane said.  And his company has a stunt planned for inside-the-Beltway, too. But he would offer only a mysterious clue.

“We’ll change the summer fashion of Washington, D.C.,” he said.

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