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Published May 17, 2011, 11:01 AM

Leaders eye July for trade deal vote

WASHINGTON — In a wide-ranging discussion of trade policy before the House Agriculture Committee May 12, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said:

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — In a wide-ranging discussion of trade policy before the House Agriculture Committee May 12, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said:

- The pending trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama could be passed by August “if not sooner” if Congress also agrees to reauthorize trade adjustment assistance for workers whose jobs have been displaced by free trade.

- Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization could help force Russia to comply with trade rules.

- Prospects for the Doha Round of negotiations do not look good.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told Kirk that the agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama should be voted on by July 1.

“If we act quickly and bring these agreements to a vote before July 1, we can ensure that U.S. producers don’t lose out on any competitive advantages,” Lucas said in his opening statement.

Although the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing on pending trade issues, the committee does not have jurisdiction over trade policy.

Competition for goods

Lucas added some thoughts on the free trade agreements in a statement released after the hearing:

“Right now, America’s farmers and ranchers are competing in the global market in the face of stiff protectionism while their foreign competitors are gaining preferential treatment and access at their expense. We must act quickly and bring these agreements to a vote before July 1. These FTAs will expand U.S. exports, create jobs and bring much-needed income to communities across rural America. It is time for action.”

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., suggested trade agreements that would benefit farmers were being held up because the administration wants labor unions to approve them.

“If farmers are being held hostage by the unions, that’s unacceptable,” Scott said.

But Kirk shot back that the South Korea agreement had been held up because Republican leaders said they did not want to consider it until the Panama and Colombia agreements also were brought forward. Kirk said it now is up to the leadership of the House Ways and Means Committee to negotiate the schedule and that the final decision on when the agreements would be submitted to Congress would be determined by President Obama.

Adjustment assistance

The administration wants reauthorization of trade adjustment assistance because more than a half-million workers in all 50 states have benefited from it, Kirk said. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who also testified, noted that 11,000 farmers and fishermen had benefited from the program.

Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., asked whether imports of fruits and vegetables from Colombia and Panama might compete with Florida produce. Kirk replied that most products from Colombia and Panama already are coming in duty-free.

Kirk noted that the administration’s broad trade agenda includes renewal of the expired trade preference programs, and pursuing congressional approval of permanent normal trade relations for Russia this year so it can join the WTO.

Kirk said he shared U.S. agriculture’s frustration in dealing with Russia, which has denied U.S. products entry on questionable plant and animal food safety grounds, but that Russia’s entry into the WTO would help.

“Currently, our ‘tool box’ for trade enforcement with regard to Russia is a small one,” Kirk said. “Having Russia subject to the same rules as 153 other WTO members puts meaningful enforcement tools in our hands.”

Another agreement

After congressional approval of the three pending trade agreements, Kirk said that the Trans Pacific Partnership is one of the administration’s top trade priorities because it will expand markets in the Asia-Pacific region.

Vilsack noted that the administration is watching out for the concerns of dairy producers in the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations.

Kirk said the Doha Round negotiations “are confronting a difficult moment. Serious gaps in ambition remain, and the path ahead is uncertain.” Under the agriculture deal currently on the table, the United States would make more commitments to reduce U.S. agricultural support than it would gain in market access, he said, adding, “This is not the basis for a deal.”

Kirk said the United States is not “throwing in the towel” on the Doha Round, “but time is not on our side, and our consideration of productive next steps must be serious and immediate.”

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