Casey leads charge on free trade pacts

By:  Daniel Malloy

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Casey is taking a lead role in an attempt to put the brakes on a trio of new free trade agreements that Congress is likely to weigh soon.

The Obama administration is trying to move three stalled free trade agreements through Congress: One it negotiated with South Korea, and pacts with Colombia and Panama left over from the second Bush administration.

The White House appears close to a deal with Congressional leaders on assistance to workers, typically in manufacturing, who lose their jobs as a result of the agreements.

But Mr. Casey joined Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, on Wednesday to demand a separate vote for trade adjustment assistance to displaced workers before taking up the agreements.

The Pennsylvania Democrat also was sharply critical of the Obama administration trade policy, saying he was unlikely to back the deals regardless of the outcome on trade assistance.

The two senators are pushing for an extension of trade assistance of five years at about $1 billion a year, which was the rate included in the stimulus bill. Mr. Casey said 23,700 people in Pennsylvania had taken advantage of the assistance before it expired in February.

But even if the assistance is extended, Mr. Casey said he has "a lot of questions" about the Korea pact. In particular, promises of job growth from previous pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement never materialized.

Mr. Casey, who is similarly skeptical about the other two deals, cited a report by the liberal Economic Policy Institute showing that NAFTA displaced 26,300 jobs from Pennsylvania and rendered a massive trade deficit with Canada and Mexico.

Mr. Casey said opposition to new trade agreements crosses party lines in Pennsylvania, and though he didn't shut the door on voting for the pending agreements, he came close.

"I think this is a road we shouldn't take," he said.

The news conference came as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced a renewed lobbying push for the agreements, with confidence that they will move forward soon in Congress.

Chamber President Tom Donohue said the group plans to support a deal on adjustment assistance, which is likely to be less than the stimulus rate.

Flipping the arguments of the pacts' foes, the Chamber used a jobs message to support them. Its new pitch for members of Congress includes a database of export goods from each state and Congressional district down to each company and the type of export.

In 2010, Pennsylvania exported $33.6 billion worth of goods, and exports supported 93,371 jobs, according to the statistics compiled by the Chamber from federal data.

Mr. Donohue said the lobbying effort has focused particularly on Republican House freshmen. One, Butler Rep. Mike Kelly, used Chamber jobs data in announcing his backing of the Korea deal last month.

But five-term Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said in an interview Wednesday that he still had concerns about the trade deals and was studying how they would affect the steel industry and other manufacturers.

President Barack Obama consummated the deal with South Korea in December, saying breaking down tariffs and trade barriers there would support 70,000 jobs.

The deal garnered the key support of the United Auto Workers and United Food and Commercial Workers, but the broader AFL-CIO union coalition did not support the pact.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced Monday that Colombia has satisfied American terms in taking steps to improve treatment of unionized workers. But this week, the AFL-CIO is increasing pressure against the deal by highlighting reports of violence against Colombian union members.