WASHINGTON -- Republicans' decision to block free-trade deals that they have previously supported is evidence that the GOP wants to hurt the economy to help its 2012 election chances, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) charged Friday.
Democrats have been making that argument for the past week, and evidently find it effective. So after Republicans boycotted a Finance Committee meeting Thursday that would have advanced trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia that the GOP long has been seeking, Schumer pounced.
"It's making many people ask, 'Do they simply want the economy to go down the drain to further their political gain?'" Schumer said. "They seem to be tying themselves in a pretzel of contradiction simply to make sure the economy doesn't advance so that their political fortunes might."
Schumer made a similar claim Thursday, and most of the Senate leadership rolled out that allegation in a Capitol Hill news conference earlier in the week. They pointed to new Republican opposition to payroll tax cuts, to a small business development program launched by President Ronald Reagan, and to incentives for innovative research.
The trade deals, expected to spark some $13 billion worth of U.S. exports, were also tied to renewal of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, a federal entitlement that has helped retrain displaced workers since the 1960s, and which many Republicans have backed in the past. It spent $975 million to aid 234,000 workers last year, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In boycotting the Finance Committee meeting, Republicans complained about the growing cost of the deals, but seemed even more annoyed by a scheduling change that moved the meeting from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called the whole process "noxious."
"This excuse doesn't pass the laugh test, and it makes one wonder, are Republicans opposing yet another measure they once supported simply because that measure might be good for the economy?" Schumer said.
Hatch praised the trade agreements as recently as May, and Sen. John Cornyn, the Texan who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said just a week ago, "We need to pass free trade agreements that should be pending before the Senate to help create more jobs here at home."
"You would have thought the Republicans would jump for joy," Schumer said. "They've been waiting and waiting and waiting."
The scuttling was entirely unexpected, especially after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hailed the bipartisan agreement that had been cut earlier in the week. The Chamber warned failing to finish the trade deals would put "380,000 American jobs at risk."
Many Republicans had also previously backed efforts to help displaced workers through the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, including Finance Committee members Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Rob Portman (Ohio), Richard Lugar (Ind.) and John Thune (S.D.).
"Even Mitt Romney, who never lets an opportunity to flip flop go to waste, said that Trade Adjustment Assistance should pass," Schumer said.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) merely pointed out that Democrats also have changed their positions on the trade deals, and that many still oppose them. He also noted that while the Senate was coming to work next week, ostensibly to deal with the debt and the budget, work was not expected to be conducted on the floor of the Senate.
UPDATE: 3:30 p.m. -- A spokesman for Cornyn scoffed at Schumer's "remarkable" accusation.
“Since Democrats took control of the Senate in 2007, the unemployment rate has jumped from 4.6% to 9.1%, gas prices have almost doubled, and the federal debt has skyrocketed past $14 trillion," said NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh. "So by every measure, Senator Schumer and his fellow liberal Democrats have done a pretty effective job of sabotaging the economy on their own, and now they want to pass job-killing tax increases instead of reining-in out-of-control Washington spending.”