Virtually every time that Republicans or the Obama Administration talk about working together, they specifically cite the South Korea free trade agreement as a point of convergence. The agreement, modified by Obama’s negotiators last year but substantially similar to the corporate-written agreement originally negotiated under George W. Bush, looks like it’s on a glide path to passage, given that unanimity. In fact, the only person standing in the way is noted grassroots labor organizer Max Baucus. As you can see, this is not about the labor or environmental standards in the agreement, but a parochial issue where Baucus is standing up for the interests of his state.
Baucus, whose committee oversees trade issues, is siding with cattle ranchers from his home state who were shut out of the deal. He has pledged opposition until South Korea reconsiders restrictions on the many U.S. beef exports it has barred. Baucus’s stand is a major obstacle to the White House and Republicans who are eager to bring the long-delayed pact to the Senate floor.
“I don’t support Korea until Korea opens up its market,” Baucus said in an interview Wednesday. By failing to resolve the beef dispute, he said, “they didn’t help at all, the administration or the Koreans.”
Baucus has not said whether he will merely vote against the agreement or will use the full force of his authority as finance chairman to block it indefinitely. The senator said he is working behind the scenes with U.S. trade officials to tweak the agreement to ensure Montana ranchers get a better deal.
“When I see that, I’ll support Korea,” Baucus said.
So it’s fair to say that labor has almost no key allies in this fight. Baucus will get bought off with some goodies for cattle ranchers in Montana, something he can sell to the folks back home. Heck, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association actually supports the deal, so Baucus is just looking for a fig leaf.
Labor itself has fractured, with the UAW in support of the crumbs they get from the deal, while most of the rest of the labor movement in opposition. But this agreement represents bipartisanship for the White House, and the opportunity to work across the aisle and with the business community to “get things done for the American people.” And if all you have standing in the way is Max Baucus, you don’t have much.