By  on June 27, 2007

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration will sign free trade agreements with South Korea and Panama this week, but the likely expiration on Saturday of the presidential authority to craft such accords without amendments from Congress may stall the administration's trade agenda.

Congress, now controlled by Democrats, is reluctant to cede its power to negotiate trade pacts to the president, especially with the World Trade Organization's Doha talks stalled.

The climate after the expiration of the president's Trade Promotion Authority would resemble the late Nineties, said Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation, recalling when "very little happened on the trade front other than litigation."

He added, "It doesn't look terribly promising out there. The lack of TPA just makes the situation that much worse. I don't really expect much progress at all."

Trade Promotion Authority is probably dead for an extended period, said Stephen Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, noting the focus would shift to reforming and renewing the trade preference programs and enforcement of trade laws.

Still, there have been some signs of cooperative movement recently.

On Monday, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said the administration had completed an understanding with Congressional leaders on how the labor and environmental provisions of trade deals would be written. That new language will be reflected in the deals with South Korea and Panama as well as in pacts with Colombia and Peru, which have already been signed and therefore made the Trade Promotion Authority cutoff.

It is unclear when the Bush administration will submit the four trade deals to Congress for up or down votes.

In the case of the South Korean deal, key lawmakers have raised objections to provisions covering auto and beef trade and the consideration of manufacturing zones in North Korea. The assassinations of labor leaders in Colombia have made U.S. lawmakers wary of the deal with that country.

Trade Promotion Authority also is viewed as crucial to the WTO's Doha talks, a cornerstone of Bush's trade policy. Named for the capital of Qatar where the negotiations were launched in 2001, a Doha trade deal could reorder the global trading landscape by reducing global tariffs and government subsidies. The talks, however, suffered the latest in a series of setbacks last week when the U.S., the European Union, Brazil and India failed strike up a basic agreement that could have served as the base for a deal among the WTO's 150 member countries.

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