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Will Levin Really Oppose the Colombia FTA?

David Callahan

Representative Sandy Levin is one of the top Democrats in Congress when it comes to trade issues and given that he represents Michigan -- where the economy has been battered by globalization -- it is no surprise that he has long taken a critical stance on free trade agreements. But Levin is not entirely hostile to such pacts. While Levin was a fierce opponent of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005, he voted for the Peru FTA in 2007, praising its historic labor rights provisions. Levin's support of that accord helped ensure its passage in the Democratic Congress.

So Levin's announcement yesterday that he would oppose the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement was no small thing. As The Hill pointed out, "Levin's decision is significant because his opposition could lead many other Democrats in the House to oppose the deal." And that, in turn, could mean a nasty battle between congressional Democrats and the White House.

But such a battle is by no means inevitable and, on closer inspection, Levin's opposition to the Colombia FTA is not so intense. What Levin said on Monday is that he would vote against the implementing bill that includes the Colombia FTA along with the FTAs with Panama and South Korea because this bill doesn't make reference to the "Action Plan" -- a side agreement on labor rights that the Obama Administration worked out with the Colombian government.

The Action Plan is hugely important to Democrats because it commits Colombia to strengthening labor rights. But the Administration and Republicans in Congress say it doesn't belong in the bill because it only includes steps to be taken by Colombia, not the U.S., and the bill is about changing U.S. law. 

Will Levin stay firm in his opposition to the Colombia FTA? Probably not. If a final trade deal includes reauthorization of an expanded Trade Adjustment Assistance program and all three FTAs are still bundled together as currently planned, Levin will have two big reasons to vote yes for the whole deal -- to get those TAA benefits flowing again to workers, but also because the South Korea FTA is likely to create new jobs for auto workers in Michigan and has the support of the United Auto Workers.

Levin is talking tough now on the Colombia FTA and let's hope he means it, since this agreement is bad news for Colombia's workers. But don't be surprised if he does an about face in coming weeks. And if that happens, the Colombia FTA -- although reviled by every major labor union -- will probably face no meaningful opposition within Congress.