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CongressNow: NAFTA Faces Scrutiny Under Obama

If presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) makes it to the White House, he has promised to review the 15-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, which greases the flow of commerce between the United States, Canada and Mexico. But despite the support Obama is likely to get from skeptics of free trade such as labor unions, modifying the trade pact is going to be a difficult promise to keep.

A multitude of companies that have improved their bottom lines through NAFTA-linked exports would prefer the pact be left untouched, for fear that amending it could open a Pandora’s box of other changes. President Bush agrees with this assessment and advocates keeping the agreement intact.

Democrats want to strengthen the pact’s labor and environmental protections to ensure that emerging countries adhere to the same standards as developed nations. The Obama campaign did not respond when asked whether the Senator intends to review NAFTA if he is elected. Groups supporting a reopening of NAFTA, however, have high hopes.

“Sen. Obama made renegotiating NAFTA a major priority during the primaries, so we would assume that would be one of the first things he would do,” said Bill Holland, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, which is critical of NAFTA.

Procedurally, the modifications the critics want can be made, since the pact does allow amendments. But politically, the ride could get bumpy.

Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, suggested that the Obama administration would be naive to think that Mexican and Canadian negotiators would agree to labor and environmental changes without getting something in return.

“The first thing the Mexicans are going to say is, ‘Fine, let’s review the agreement. Let’s talk about getting our trucks into your country.’ The Canadians are going to say, ‘Sure, let’s review NAFTA — let’s talk about delays and the border, let’s talk about travel back and forth and all the documentary requirements,’” he said. “They’ve got agenda items, too, that will be well chosen [and] are things that we are not going to want to concede.”

For the past eight years, Leslie Schweitzer, a senior trade adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and her Chamber-affiliated organization, TradeRoots, have been making the rounds in communities to promote NAFTA. She is primed to take on Obama’s promise to review the pact.

“We are fully prepared to attack this head-on after the first of the year if in fact that scenario proves to be true,” she said.

About 50 local chambers participated when the program began. That number has grown to 400 in preparation for the day Obama pursues his trade agenda. Schweitzer acknowledges deteriorating support of free trade and said she fears that the situation will only worsen if the Senator’s pledge forces the U.S. into taking a “timeout on trade.”

“We will fight very hard against that,” she said. “The American consumer and businessperson cannot afford to take a timeout on trade, nor can our trading partners around the world.”

So far, Schweitzer’s organization has targeted 80 Congressional districts to persuade voters to support NAFTA. More districts could be added depending on what Obama does if elected.

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