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American Shipper

Congress urged to vote on Panama trade deal

Congress urged to vote on Panama trade deal

Congressional supporters of a free trade agreement with Panama expressed guarded optimism Tuesday that the deal will come up for a vote and be approved in a lame duck session following the Nov. 4 election.

   The supporters expressed dismay that the White House is insisting that Congress first take up the more controversial Colombia free trade agreement.

   “If our government negotiates a trade agreement it undermines our credibility as a nation if we can’t even get a vote,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. “It’s not fair to take a hostage in this situation.”

   Democrats now in control of Congress have been reluctant to approve any deals making it easier for foreign products to compete in the domestic market while presidential and congressional candidates have taken protectionist positions on the campaign trail.   

   Last year, the Democratic leadership reached a compromise with the Bush administration on labor and environmental safeguards that was supposed to make passage easier for trade deals negotiated with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea.

   Congress approved the Peru free trade agreement late last year, but the other deals are still hung up over political disagreements. Earlier this summer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used parliamentary maneuvers to delay a vote on the Colombia free trade pact. One of the stumbling blocks for a deal with Panama was that the president of the Panamanian national assembly is wanted in the United States for the murder of two U.S. servicemen. But the situation changed on Sept. 1 when his term expired, opening the door for Congress to vote on the deal.

   At a pro-Panama briefing hosted by the Council of the Americas on Capitol Hill, several lawmakers said Democrats will be more willing to vote for the Panama deal once the election is over, but added Congress should not punt a decision to the next session in January.

   Smith said Democrats have the labor and environmental protections in place they sought and should move the Panama deal forward. The majority of Congress will support the deal because of the protections and the strong relationship with Panama, he predicted.

   “If Democrats hold up (a Panama trade deal), then they need to explain what they want. It’s not legitimate to just sit on these things,” Smith said. He argued that if Barack Obama wins the presidential election, Democratic leaders will not want to dump the trade pact in his lap because he will be busy pushing a huge agenda of issues.

   He stressed that a deal with Panama shouldn’t be “sacrificed” because of the ongoing fight over the Colombian trade agreement.

   Lawmakers said there was a slim chance that a Panama deal could be attached in the remaining five days of the session to a continuing resolution providing budgetary authority for agencies beyond the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year until new appropriations are enacted.

   Congressional leaders may not be able to avoid a lame duck session because so many issues have been left unaddressed and the lawmakers said that was the best opportunity to win passage of the trade pact.

   Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., urged Congress to get a jobs bill completed because that would give members the comfort to approve trade deals.

   A deal that slashes duties on U.S. exports to Panama would create jobs and allow U.S. equipment manufacturers such as Caterpillar to participate in the expansion of the Panama Canal and port construction, he said.

   Congress needs to at least get trade preferences for Panama extended in the event a Panama trade deal isn’t passed during a lame duck session, said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Indiana.

   He joked that lawmakers should do “anything ' short of murder to get this thing closed.” ' Eric Kulisch

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