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Colombia deal has better shot under Obama, say trade lobbyists, union reps

The Hill | 16 September 2008

Colombia deal has better shot under Obama, say trade lobbyists, union reps

By Kevin Bogardus

Both sides in the debate over the controversial trade deal with Colombia believe the pact has a better chance of passing next year if Barack Obama is elected president.

The irony is that Obama has been an opponent of the deal, while Republican presidential candidate John McCain is a staunch supporter of the accord.

Labor leaders also think that Obama, who at times talked tough against trade agreements during the Democratic primary, could seek to move the deal if elected president. Trade lobbyists also think unions would be under more pressure to work with him than McCain.

“The irony here is a President McCain will probably have a more difficult time in a passing a Colombia FTA [free trade agreement] than a President Obama,” said one union official, who spoke on background to talk candidly about both candidates.

Trade lobbyists who support the deal and union representatives who oppose it think a Democratic president working with a Democratic Congress would have a better chance of moving the deal, which has run into opposition from labor unions.

If McCain is elected president, he could face tougher opposition from a Congress that seems likely to be controlled by Democrats, these sources said.

“Congress with a larger Democratic majority is not going to give much away on trade under McCain,” said one trade lobbyist, who asked to speak on background.

On the other hand, a Democratic Congress might offer support to a President Obama, if he wanted to move the Colombia deal.

“When there is a new president, if his party controls Congress, their natural position is supporting his legislative goals,” the trade lobbyist said.

Supporters of the trade deal still hope the pact will be considered this year. They think the FTA could come for a vote during a lame-duck session after this year’s elections, when President Bush could still sign the bill into law.

Business groups and the Colombian government are in the midst of a new lobbying push for the trade pact that includes a visit by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who arrives in Washington on Friday. Last week, dozens of business group representatives held a Capitol Hill rally for a congressional vote on the deal.

Chances for a lame-duck session appear to have increased in recent weeks, given the list of objectives Democrats want to approve in their few remaining legislative days. Congress is scheduled to adjourn on Sept. 26.

“They are going to have some unfinished business. We are going to push very, very hard to get this passed,” said Christopher Wenk, senior director of international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Democrats are pressing for a second economic stimulus package, and some believe the Colombia trade deal could be a bargaining chip in those negotiations. In addition, trade lobbyists have long thought the next president might prefer that Congress tackle the controversial Colombia deal before inauguration day for his successor. This would remove a nettlesome measure from the next president’s agenda.

Obama, like other Democrats, has voiced opposition to the deal because of what he says is Colombia’s poor record of violence against trade unionists.

While facing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the Democratic primary, Obama took a hard line against the trade deals advocated by the Bush administration. In the run-up to the Ohio primary, he called for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to be renegotiated.

Trade lobbyists believe Obama would be open to the trade deal as president and note he has softened his rhetoric on trade since winning his party’s presidential nomination.

They point to a speech the Illinois senator gave this past May in Miami as evidence that Colombia’s trade deal would be considered during his administration.

In the speech, Obama rejected the “Bush-McCain view” that any trade deal is a good deal. But he also noted his support in 2006 for a trade deal with Peru, which he said had binding labor and environmental provisions. “That’s the kind of trade we need - trade that lifts up workers, not just a corporate bottom line,” Obama said.

Supporters of the Colombia deal and its opponents think both McCain and Obama would have to seek changes to the pact in order for it to clear a Congress controlled by Democrats. But they think Obama would be more likely to push for those changes, and Democrats and unions would be in more of a position to accept them.

“[McCain] is less likely to use his clout to press for reforms in Colombia or renegotiate the deal,” one labor official said.

Some union representatives are suggesting they could support the Colombia deal if Obama were elected because they would be more certain that an Obama administration would enforce labor standards than would President Bush, or a McCain administration.

“If you had Sen. Obama in the White House, who promised to enforce the agreement, that would be different,” said Yvette Pena Lopes, legislative representative for the Teamsters.

But Pena Lopes said there would still need to be changes in the agreement for it to draw the support of the Teamsters.

“In addition, he would have to address the labor issues on the ground in Colombia,” she said. “There are certain provisions and clauses that need to be reviewed and renegotiated.”

 source: The Hill