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By Peter Cohn

Never a bright prospect in an election year, the odds might now be even longer for free-trade pacts in 2010 as a majority of the House Democratic Caucus is supporting a bill to rewrite or scrap new agreements and a handful of existing ones.

That could be bad news for a Trans-Pacific trade accord backed by President Obama, as well as the Doha Round of multilateral trade talks, and particularly for bilateral pacts with Colombia, South Korea and Panama negotiated by former President George W. Bush.

The Obama administration is still shaping its trade policy and where it fits within an increasingly crowded agenda, and House Democrats are clearly going to be a significant factor. “If you want to change the thinking, you’ve got to change the House’s thinking,” said National Foreign Trade Council President William Reinsch.

Change might just have gotten tougher to come by. Trade skeptics received an emphatic endorsement Friday when House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, one of Speaker Pelosi’s most trusted allies, came out in support of the bill by Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine.

Speaking at an event in Concord, Calif., with neighboring Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, Miller had harsh words for the Doha Round and Colombia pact in particular, where he has led an investigation into violence against union members.

Workers in Colombia have been killed “at the direction of the government, of the manufacturers, of the economic class in that country … the idea that it’s all been taken care of now; no, it hasn’t,” Miller proclaimed before an audience of Teamsters, longshoremen, machinists, auto workers and others.

“If you organize in Colombia, you’re liable to get killed when you’re on your way home,” said Miller, according to a video clip of the event posted online by the Contra Costa Times. “All through Latin America, you want to organize a banana plantation? You want to organize a coffee plantation? You’ll find out that the military will be there and they’ll burn down your house. Happens every day.”

The Colombian Embassy did not have an immediate comment. Miller went on to say that developing countries negotiating in the Doha Round are recognizing that the objectives of the United States could put them at a disadvantage. “People keep wanting to have the Doha Round. … The reason it’s not getting done, it doesn’t work for enough nations. It’s not fair,” Miller said. “They’re saying, ‘Enough. We want a new deal.’ The Doha Round is, I don’t know, it’s like hallucinations. These people can’t let go of it. The world has moved on.”

Garamendi and Miller are the 128th and 129th voting members of the House Democratic Caucus to endorse the Michaud bill. That gives Michaud a majority of the 256-member Caucus, even if the eventual replacement for Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii — who is resigning next month to run for governor — declines to co-sponsor the bill.

The bill is not expected to become law, but it is considered an important barometer on potential trade votes. While enough Republicans and business-friendly Democrats could be counted on for majority support, House Democratic leaders are considered unlikely to put forward a party-splitting bill, particularly when they do not have a “majority of the majority” in support.

“The fact that a majority of Democrats in the House are now co-sponsors of the bill signals strong support for the change agenda that the president campaigned on. It also signals that the majority of the Democratic Caucus will not support the old trade model represented by the pending free-trade agreements,” Michaud said in a statement. “We need to push policies that will reverse the damage caused by previous trade agreements so that we can create jobs, not ship them overseas. Moving forward, I remain hopeful that the administration will embrace a new trade agenda that is forward-thinking and that protects U.S. jobs and businesses.”

Garamendi, who won his seat in a special election last year, became a co-sponsor on Dec. 16. His backing is instructive of the direction the Caucus has taken — Garamendi’s predecessor in the 10th District was former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a leader of the pro-trade New Democrat Coalition. Garamendi said at the Friday event that he would not support trade deals “unless they provide the protection that every human being on this planet should have,” including labor, environmental and food safety standards.

Miller, a 35-year House veteran, has long been a reliable labor ally and opposed all of the major trade deals dating back to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Nonetheless, his endorsement was a coup for labor officials and other progressive activists. He put out a statement Friday announcing his support for the Michaud bill, but he saved his strongest words for the actual event earlier that day. “These trade agreements — I didn’t vote for any of them. They were wrong then, and they’re wrong now,” Miller said.

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said the majority Democratic support for Michaud’s bill demonstrates the administration must do serious outreach to lawmakers before pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership can move. It also demonstrates that Obama should recall his 2008 campaign rhetoric on trade, she said, which included a pledge to renegotiate NAFTA.

Business groups argue shelving the trade deals will do nothing to create jobs and could do the opposite. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others say failure to move while global competitors gobble up international markets risks shutting U.S. firms out and sacrificing exports and jobs. Reinsch noted that the European Union and South Korea have agreed to lower barriers to each others’ goods and services, for example. “The minute the EU-Korea agreement goes into effect, we’re toast,” he said.

“As members of Congress are asked to co-sponsor this misguided legislation, they should be asking themselves: Will this bill create jobs for my constituents?” said Christopher Wenk, senior director for international policy at the Chamber. “The answer is flat out, unequivocally, no.” He said the bill is “a sure recipe for prolonged double-digit unemployment in this country.”

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