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No One Wants to Tout Free-Trade Agreements

Republicans and Democrats could be using this week’s likely passage of a series of trade deals as a rare victory for bipartisanship in a decidedly partisan era in American politics.

But instead, both parties appear to be having difficulty tooting their horns, thanks in large part to the very toxic environment that has choked out comity for much of the year.

“Republicans don’t want to give the president a victory, Democrats are split and everyone is distracted by other things,” one senior Democratic aide said, summing up the lack of enthusiasm surrounding the trade bills.

The House is poised to approve the free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea today, with the Senate likely to follow suit in short order, as the Senate Finance Committee approved the deals Tuesday. The movement comes ahead of a visit by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who will address a joint session of Congress on Thursday.

The votes also come after months of bipartisan negotiations and remarkably little wrangling among Congressional leaders who have criticized one another over nearly every other economic measure this year.

The cooperation can hardly be overstated. The deals were initially negotiated by the administration of George W. Bush but quickly became political footballs, getting caught up in a broader fight over Trade Adjustment Assistance and disputes that include concerns over violence against labor leaders (Colombia), access to automobile and beef markets (South Korea), and banking secrecy (Panama).

While business groups applaud Congress’ likely approval of the measures, which are also part of President Barack Obama’s jobs agenda, leaders on Capitol Hill have had a tough time staying focused on the topic.

“These bills are two and a half years in the waiting from this administration, and I’m glad they are finally sending these up,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said at his weekly briefing with reporters Tuesday. Instead, Cantor trained more of his focus on the GOP’s regulatory agenda and Obama’s jobs bill. Still, the Virginia Republican noted, “There is the potential for the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs, a quarter of a million jobs” through the trade agreements.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer didn’t offer much more at his own gathering with reporters. The Maryland Democrat predicted the deals “will pass with bipartisan support” but chose instead to blast Republicans for not doing more to push a jobs agenda.

Hoyer noted that his colleagues widely object to the Colombia deal, given that country’s history of violence against labor leaders, and he used his weekly briefing to offer sharp criticism of Republicans on jobs. The No. 2 House Democrat challenged the GOP to bring Obama’s jobs proposal to the floor, even as it was poised for defeat in the Senate, and he complained that Republicans are pushing political messaging bills rather than measures that could boost the economy.

“Republicans are pushing bills day after day, week after week, month after month, for the last nine months that they know are not going to pass the United States Senate, yet there’s no pushback,” Hoyer said.

Yet the trade bills represent one of those rare instances where the House, Senate and White House all pushed for a remarkably similar legislative package, itself worth noting.

Obama mentioned the trade deals in his jobs speech before a joint session last month, telling Members, “If Americans can buy Kias and Hyundais, I want to see folks in South Korea driving Fords and Chevys and Chryslers.”

Still, Republicans have criticized Obama for not submitting the deals sooner. He officially submitted them last week, a formality after the behind-the-scenes negotiating was done. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), meanwhile, has said she would prefer to see the House approve legislation on China currency manipulation before considering the trade bills.

Rep. Sander Levin, ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, also sought to push the China currency bill Tuesday, placing more focus on that measure during a briefing with reporters than the trade bills that came out of his own committee. But the Michigan Democrat hailed his party for successfully pushing for key changes in the South Korea measure regarding automotive markets, and he declared, “If it weren’t for House Democrats, we would not be taking up these revised bills.”

But asked if similar bipartisan exchanges would be the new norm when it comes to economic bills, many of which come out of his committee, Levin was doubtful.

“These FTAs have their own history,” he said. “So I think it’s a little hard to draw any specific lesson as to future legislation. But when it comes to trade … hope rings eternal.”

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