As the battle of the job plans reaches its pinnacle tonight with President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress, trade agreements have emerged as one of the only areas of consensus in the field of polar opposite ideas for how to reduce America’s 9.1 percent unemployment rate.
Trade agreements with Panama, South Korea and Columbia have made the list of job-creating policy priorities in every job plan from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to President Obama.
Despite this broad — and rare — agreement, the fate of these bills still hangs in the cloud of congressional procedural tactics and partisan wrangling that Capitol Hill became notorious for during the debt ceiling debate.
“The standing of trade is actually pretty high in terms of an area of growing bipartisan consensus,” said John Murphy, the vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Unfortunately, this is a city where trust is in short supply.”
The chamber estimates that opening trade with these three countries could create 380,000 jobs. The free-trade agreement with South Korea alone could add a quarter of a million American jobs, Murphy said.
But Democrats have made it clear that they will not consider the trade bills until Republicans vow to pass the Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that aids workers who lose their jobs because of increased imports or outsourcing that the trade agreements create.
The TAA, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will add nearly $3 billion to the deficit in five years, has been a tough sell for Republicans. The assistance and job training program’s budget, which was originally slated to cost $5.4 billion over five years, was slashed by nearly a third in order to pull in enough Republican support.
“We believe the numbers are there for passage,” Murphy said. “At a time of fiscal austerity it passed muster on that score so on that basis we believe that there will be a significant number of votes in support of Trade Adjustment Systems.”
Murphy said House freshmen, some of the most conservative members of Congress, have been “very receptive” and “strongly supportive” of the trade agreements, but will almost surely vote against the TAA.
Senate Democrats plan to attach the TAA to the Generalized System of Preferences program which reduces tariffs on imports from 130 countries. The House passed the GSP Wednesday night.
While Murphy said it is “highly likely” that the president will mention the trade agreements in his jobs speech today, the Chamber of Commerce does not think it is necessary for the President to lay out his agenda for how to move the agreements through Congress.
“We are not focused on words, but on what is unfolding,” Murphy said. “And that process started last night with the GSP bill passing in the House.”