WASHINGTON Seated at tables facing the administration’s point man on trade, the senators made pitches for products from their states.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat from Arkansas, made a case for rice and chicken.
Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican? He wanted to talk about cotton.
Don’t forget dairy, urged Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York.
The product endorsements, given to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, came at a Senate Agriculture Committee meeting held Wednesday to assess the Obama administration’s commitment to opening foreign markets to U.S. goods.
In his January State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama pledged to double U.S. exports over the next five years. Members of the committee said they saw little progress.
“I’m flabbergasted that we’re not working harder to get deals done,” said Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana. “I don’t mean just working. I mean results.”
Kirk said that total agricultural exports were on track to rise to $105 billion this year, an increase of $8 billion over last year’s mark. He predicted the total volume of exports to increase 17 percent this year over 2009’s tally, when exports totaled $1.06 trillion.
Though exports are up for 2010, senators on the committee noted that this year’s projected increase simply means exports are gaining some of the ground they lost as a result of the global recession. The 2009 total was significantly lower than in 2008, when exports totaled nearly $1.3 trillion.
As part of the push to expand exports, Kirk said the administration is trying to complete trade negotiations with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. It also hopes to restart World Trade Organization talks that have stalled, in large part, because of agricultural disputes, and pursue completion of a “Trans-Pacific Partnership” trade deal with seven countries in the Pacific Rim.
Lincoln, the chairman of the committee, offered a list of initiatives she said could increase agricultural trade. In addition to the three pending trade treaties, she encouraged Kirk to open up trade with Cuba. The communist country, which as been subject to a U.S. embargo since 1960, is seen as a lucrative market for Arkansas’ poultry and rice growers. She also pushed for giving the president “fast-track” authority to negotiate trade treaties with a minimum of congressional involvement.
Lincoln said farmers “deserve the chance” to compete in the global market.
“If they are given unhindered access to the world’s markets, they will rise to the challenge,” she said. “We can’t afford to stay on the sidelines.”
Kirk said he was sympathetic to opening U.S.-Cuba trade, but stressed that doing so was the “prerogative of Congress.”
Another Lincoln priority - an agreement that would have lifted the Russian ban on poultry imports from the United States - has been put on hold, because the Russians insisted on on-site inspections of U.S. poultry operations late in the negotiations.
“We hit a another stumbling block there,” Kirk said. “The agriculture trade minister in Russia has been a little difficult to deal with.”
And regarding the World Trade Organization talks, Kirk would only offer that he was “less discouraged” than he was previously.
Committee members pressed for more results.
“I remain skeptical, said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the committee. “This administration must do more than pay lip service to initiatives that will lull us into a false sense” that things are getting done.
Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade deals, told Kirk that if a pending trade deal with South Korea didn’t open up that country’s market for beef, it was a nonstarter in his committee.
Kirk was optimistic that the U.S. and South Korea could complete a deal before Obama visits Seoul in November. But he said completion of treaties with Panama and Colombia were being held up by concerns about working conditions and labor rights in those countries. In the case of Colombia, he said, the federal agencies are working up a list of labor proposals to present to that country’s new president, Juan Manuel Santos, who takes office this week.
The Panamanian government, he said, has been given U.S. labor demands.
While he said those concerns reflected a resurgence of input from organized labor in trade negotiations over the past year, he said that “labor does not have a veto power over the trade policy of the Obama administration.”
Lincoln suggested she could use an Arkansas connection to help complete a deal with Panama: the country’s president, Ricardo Martinelli Berrocal, graduated from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1973, before he returned to his native country to launch a successful supermarket chain.
“We might be of some service to you,” she said.