President Barack Obama deserves a failing grade for his handling of U.S. trade policy during his first nine months on the job, a senior Republican senator said on Monday.
If you go to class, college, and you don't do anything, you get an F, Senator Charles Grassley said at the Reuters Washington Summit.
Grassley's tough language reflects Republican frustration with White House inaction on free trade pacts with Panama, Colombia and South Korea, which were negotiated by the administration of former President George W. Bush.
If there's anything that would help us with this economic downturn, it would be to promote trade ... If you're in a recession and trade would help you get out of it, you shouldn't be doing nothing, Grassley said at the summit, held at the Reuters office in Washington.
The Iowa Republican also expressed concern about the recent drop in the value of the U.S. dollar, saying it sent a bad signal to the rest of the world that the United States doesn't have its economy under control.
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, gave Obama an A for his efforts to rescue the U.S. economy, in a separate interview. But like all presidents, his record on trade is a mixed picture, Levin said, adding that Democrats have concerns about all three free trade pacts that must be addressed.
Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office, defended the administration's record, saying USTR has racked up a significant list of trade-promoting accomplishments since Obama took office.
They include negotiating a market-opening agreement for U.S. beef in Europe, taking China to the World Trade Organization for restrictions on raw material exports that push up costs for steel producers and working to keep markets open to U.S. farm products during the swine flu crisis, she said.
USTR also continues to push for an agreement in the Doha round of world trade talks and is making concerted efforts to review and address outstanding issues with pending free trade agreements, Guthrie said.
UNIONS OPPOSE FREE TRADE DEALS
Obama sided with union groups and other opponents of the Colombia and South Korean agreements during last year's election. Since becoming president in January, Obama has promised to work with both countries and members of Congress to move the pacts forward.
But U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, in an interview last week with National Journal, said there was no particular timetable for bringing the agreements to Congress.
The worst thing we can do is box ourselves into a corner and get caught up in a congressional timeline, Kirk said, adding that trade deals are always tough.
Grassley focused his criticism on Obama, who he accused of failing to live up to a deal that congressional Democrats struck with the Bush administration in May 2007.
I'm not blaming Kirk. He has got his heart in the right place, but the White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress have not given him a free hand, Grassley said.
The trade deal with Colombia has been controversial ever since it was signed in November 2006, shortly after Democrats won control of Congress in that month's election. The pacts with South Korea and Panama were signed in June 2007.
The Bush administration negotiated an agreement with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders in May 2007 that it hoped would set the stage for approval of pending trade agreements.
Congress did subsequently approve a trade deal with Peru, but the AFL-CIO and other labor groups have continued to strongly oppose the Colombian agreement.
They say Colombia does not deserve a free trade agreement with the United States because President Alvaro Uribe has not done enough to reduce violence against trade unionists and prosecute murderers -- a charge the country rejects.
The United Auto Workers and Ford Motor Co. have opposed the Korean agreement on the grounds it does not do enough to tear down non-tariff barriers that keep out American cars, a criticism the Bush administration strongly refuted.
Most mainstream U.S. business groups support all three pacts, which they say would expand exports at a time when manufacturers are suffering from reduced domestic demand.
Republican concern about inaction on the trade pacts has grown since the European Union initialed its own deal with South Korea last week.
We've got Europe reaching an agreement with South Korea and here ours is sitting there, Grassley said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer, Editing by Anthony Boadle)