Republicans who had urged President Barack Obama to move three long-awaited free trade agreements are now threatening to torpedo the pacts and deny U.S. businesses — including signature Kentucky industries — the chance to compete in growing overseas markets.
The sticking point is Trade Adjustment Assistance, a 50-year-old program that pays to retrain U.S. workers who lose jobs because of increased foreign competition.
Democrats don't trust Republicans to renew the program unless it's attached to the trade agreement with South Korea.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has threatened to vote against the Korea deal if it includes assistance for the unemployed.
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Republicans cite the cost of a program they consider ineffective and also object on procedural grounds, saying worker assistance should be considered separately.
These differences could be easily overcome if Republicans could bring themselves to give Obama any kind of victory.
A long list of U.S. business interests, from the American Farm Bureau to the Telecommunications Industry Association and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have made clear they support the worker assistance program and also fear that if the trade agreements don't win approval now it could be years.
More than 70 percent of the world's purchasing power is outside the U.S., according to the Business Roundtable. The global middle class will swell from 440 million to 1.2 billion by 2025, according to the National Intelligence Council.
Competitors are inking free trade agreements right and left. The U.S. is already losing ground and risks being shut out of growing markets if the U.S. government remains paralyzed by partisanship.
Obama has set a goal of doubling exports over the next five years, which he says will spur job creation. His administration renegotiated Bush-era agreements that languished in a Democratic Congress and would eliminate or lower tariffs on goods and services with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
"Trade" is a dirty word for many Kentuckians, who blame it for the loss of low-wage manufacturing jobs, which aren't coming back.
The new agreements, especially the Korean one, promise benefits to Kentucky businesses and workers, including those in agriculture, auto making, chemicals and distilling.
Ford, a major creator of Kentucky jobs, had opposed the Korea agreement until the U.S. won concessions lowering non-tariff barriers. Now Ford and the United Auto Workers, alone among unions, support the Korea agreement.
The Farm Bureau estimates $2.5 billion in U.S. agriculture exports from the three agreements, which would also open South Korea to U.S. beef.
Kentucky's bourbon industry is eager to get a chance to compete in Korea. (Making Kentucky bourbon affordable to scotch drinkers could also be viewed as an act of international good will.)
Objections from the left have been raised to the Colombia deal because of that country's record of human-rights abuses. The U.S. has extracted a labor rights pledge from the Colombian government, which will bear close monitoring, in exchange for the trade deal.
On balance, the trade agreements look like a good deal for Kentucky. It will be enlightening to see if McConnell is willing to undermine his state to undermine Obama.