WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress will not approve any free trade agreements before the November 4 presidential election but could vote on the pacts afterward if President George W. Bush calls lawmakers back for a “lame duck” session, a senior Democratic congressman said on Thursday.
“Definitely we can’t do anything before the election,” House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel told reporters when asked whether Congress might vote this year on deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
Many lawmakers are loathe to vote on trade deals just before facing voters at the polls, and the Colombian and the South Korean deals have issues that make them particularly controversial.
Democrats want Colombia to do more to reduce violence against trade unionists. They also want to renegotiate auto and other manufacturing provisions of the South Korean deal, which they say are too one-sided.
Business groups are holding out hope Congress will approve at least one of the agreements in a lame duck session after the election and before the new administration takes over in January, even though congressional leaders say they have no plans to hold one.
Rangel said he would meet with Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at the White House on Saturday.
Whether Congress returns and votes on any trade deal depends largely on whether Bush decides to “call us into a lame duck session,” Rangel said.
“That doesn’t mean we would have the votes” to approve the deals, he added.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, in a conference call with reporters, declined to say whether Bush would take that step. But he said it was urgent that Congress pass the Colombia agreement because the protection it enjoys against amendments by lawmakers that could unravel the pact expires at year end.
The expiration date applies because Bush has formally submitted the Colombia pact to Congress, whereas he has not taken that step with the Panama and South Korea deals.
It is one reason the White House insists that Congress vote on the Colombia pact first instead of the less controversial Panama deal, Gutierrez said.
Rep. Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, told Reuters he saw no chance any of the agreements would be approved this year.
The countries should be “thinking of new ways and new ideas to meet the problems that we’ve raised ... rather than trying to push things through here, which won’t happen,” Levin said.
The White House believes it has the votes in Congress to win approval of the Colombia pact, Gutierrez said.
Editing by Xavier Briand