U.S.-Korea Trade Deal Gives Obama, GOP Rare Bipartisan Chance : It's All Politics Free-trade pact gives Obama and congressional Republicans a rare chance for a bipartisan victory. Both Obama and Republicans will be able to use congressional approval of the pact as a success.
NPR logo U.S.-Korea Trade Deal Gives Obama, GOP Rare Bipartisan Chance

U.S.-Korea Trade Deal Gives Obama, GOP Rare Bipartisan Chance

President Barack Obama arrives on the South Lawn of the White House after returning from Afghanistan, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010.  Evan Vucci/AP hide caption

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Evan Vucci/AP

The announcement late Friday that trade negotiators succeeded in reaching a final U.S.-South Korean trade agreement gives President Obama a much needed victory.

It comes just a few weeks after the president left the G-20 meeting in Seoul, S. Korea of officials from the world's largest economies without a deal.

At the end of that meeting, many pundits and the president's critics called the lack of a pact a signal failure for the president, a sign the looming takeover of the House by Republicans had significantly weakened him on the international stage.

The president was more sanguine, saying a deal would be reached within a matter of weeks. Events have proven he was right.

The agreement in hand would remove many S. Korean trade barriers that have barred many U.S. autos and other products and services from the Asian nation.

The Obama Administration says the deal will mean $11 billion in annual revenues for U.S. companies and tens of thousands of jobs for U.S. workers.

It now gives Obama and the soon-to-be Republican-controlled House what is likely to be a rare chance at bipartisanship.

The agreement has support from important Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan who is poised to become the influential chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

So while the Democrat in the White House and the Republicans controlling the House may not agree on much, the U.S.-S. Korean trade pact is one place where they will since free-trade is a bedrock GOP principle.

As Jeffrey Schott, a trade expert at the Petersen Institute for International Economics explained in an op-ed piece in Korea Times:

One reason for optimism on trade is the new Republican leadership on the powerful Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives: David Camp, who will become committee chairman, and Kevin Brady, who will chair its crucial trade subcommittee. Both favor moving forward on a broad trade agenda, starting with the KORUS FTA. Both are pragmatic politicians who are willing to work with their Democratic counterparts. Both think highly of Obama's US Trade Representative (USTR), Ambassador Ron Kirk, and support his efforts to work with Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-Hoon to remove the final obstacles to implementing the trade pact...

Once the two presidents agree, White House and USTR officials will work with Congressmen Camp and Brady in early 2011 to draft implementing legislation for the KORUS FTA. Because the KORUS FTA was signed just before the expiration of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) on June 30, 2007, it still qualifies for the TPA's "fast track" procedures: implementing legislation cannot be amended and requires passage by a simple majority in both the House and the Senate within a set period of time. Thus, if a bill is sent to the House Ways and Means Committee in January or February 2011, it would be voted before the summer.

Once a bill is tabled, it is highly likely to pass. Congress cannot say "no" to an important ally—especially now, given sensitive developments on the Korean peninsula. Nonetheless, the vote will likely be close, since Democratic leaders will "excuse" as many of their members as possible from voting yes while still allowing passage of the bill. Passage will require a large majority of Republican votes and a significant minority of Democratic votes, just as with almost every FTA since NAFTA. That task got easier with the large Republican electoral gains.

A free-trade victory will give Obama another point on which to appeal to independent voters and even some Republicans as he tries to recapture the political center as he approaches his re-election.

It gives him a way to deflect Republican charges that he's an unreconstructed liberal in thrall to the special interests in Democratic Party.

Indeed, while the administration provided a list of corporate CEOs and advocacy-group leaders supporting the agreement, noticeably absent were the union leaders critical to his 2008 election and his re-election.

Meanwhile, Republicans will be able to point to a free-trade pact as a significant accomplishment, blunting the president's criticism of them as the party of "no" and the "do-nothing" Congress.