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New York Times: Breaking Through on Trade

April 18, 2011

After two years of dithering, it is good to see the Obama administration championing freer trade. Last week, the United States and Colombia announced a deal that will improve, and we hope finally win passage of, a 2006 trade agreement signed during the Bush administration. The amended version will strengthen worker protections in Colombia while boosting American exports.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress must now overcome their parochial interests and approve the entire set of trade initiatives snagged on Capitol Hill. That includes an amended agreement with South Korea, first signed in 2007, and programs to grant preferential access to imports from Andean countries and to help American workers who lose their jobs because of competition with imported goods. Those lapsed in February.

The agreements with Colombia and South Korea would cement relations with key allies and slash tariffs on a range of American agricultural and industrial goods. The Andean preferences would help to combat the cocaine trade by creating jobs in other export industries. These deals (and another with Panama) have languished for years mainly because of Democrats’ — more to the point, their union backers’ — lack of enthusiasm for free trade.

President Obama seemed to have broken through on South Korea in December, after his aides renegotiated the agreement with Seoul to improve the terms for American carmakers. Then Republicans, who claim to champion trade, refused to pass the agreement or extend assistance for workers until the administration moved to gain approval of the Colombia deal.

Democrats have long opposed that agreement, arguing that Colombia’s labor laws are too weak and the government has not done enough to stop attacks against members of labor unions. And they refused to renew the Andean preferences unless the trade adjustment assistance was extended, too.

The new deal with Colombia should cut this Gordian knot. Bogota has committed to restore land to people displaced by conflict, increase state protection of union members and increase prison sentences for those convicted of killing them. It will change its criminal code to penalize with up to five years in prison anybody who interferes with workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.

The administration also expects that Panama will soon satisfy President Obama’s conditions for moving forward on its 2007 trade agreement. Those include passing new laws to protect labor rights and agreeing to international standards to combat cross-border tax evasion.

Some Democrats may never be persuadable. Representative Sander Levin of Michigan and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio have made clear their opposition to the amended Colombia deal. But these agreements are good for the American economy and good for national security. Congress should waste no more time and approve them.