March 31 deadline for U.S. approval of trade agenda

By Doug Palmer WASHINGTON, Reuters

The U.S. trade agenda faces a critical test this week, with possible ramifications for world trade talks, as the Bush administration strives to reach deals with the U.S. Congress and South Korea. “I think (this) week matters a hell of a lot” in terms of the White House’s ability to renew trade promotion authority, which expires on July 1, said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. That legislation, also known as fast track, allows the White House to negotiate trade deals that Congress must approve or reject without making changes. Most experts believe renewing the authority is essential for completion of the Doha round of world trade talks, now in their sixth year. As a first step toward renewal of fast track, the Bush administration needs to reach an agreement with the new Democratic-controlled Congress on what protections for workers should be included in free trade agreements, Alden said. That most immediately effects free trade pacts with Colombia and Peru, which were signed last year, and another with Panama, which is finished except for the labor chapter. Democrats, who won control of Congress in the November elections, want all free trade pacts to include an enforceable commitment to abide by core international labor standards, such as freedom of association, freedom to bargain collectively, freedom from child labor, freedom from forced or compulsory labor and freedom from workplace discrimination. They view current talks with the Bush administration as a confidence-building measure toward renewal of trade promotion authority. “There is a danger right now of the whole thing falling apart if you don’t work out the labor standards issues on these agreements by the end of March,” Alden said. March 31 is an important deadline because the White House must give Congress 90 days notice before signing a deal if they are to be voted on under trade promotion authority. Even though the Colombia and Peru pacts are already signed, Democrats say they must be renotified once a new agreement on labor is reached. The 90-days notice requirement also means negotiations on the proposed Korea-U.S. (KORUS) free trade agreement must be concluded by March 31 — or possibly April 2, some experts say — to be submitted to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote without any amendments. Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Karan Bhatia left on Saturday to try to wrap up the free trade talks with South Korea. Meanwhile, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab will continue talks in Washington this week aimed at reaching a deal on labor issues with House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat. “The perfect scenario is to get a commercially good deal on Korea and to come to agreement with leaders on Capitol Hill on how to move forward. That would be a great week and that is what our goal is,” said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. Spicer expressed hope U.S. trade officials would be able to accomplish both goals, which in the case of South Korea has to include getting meaningful new market access for U.S. automobiles and agricultural products. However, Steve Collins, president of the Automotive Trade Policy Council, said he was worried the Bush administration was about to conclude a one-sided agreement that would remove remaining U.S. car and truck tariffs without prying open the heavily protected Korean auto market. “They (the Koreans) have not come forward in a year with a single automotive proposal and we’re within six days of a showdown,” Collins said.