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Obama Push Gives Stalled Trade Pact a Pulse

House Members and the downtown business community are rallying behind a renewed White House call for a free-trade agreement with South Korea.

Speaking at last weekend’s G-20 meeting in Toronto, President Barack Obama said he wants to finalize a pending free-trade agreement by the time he visits the Asian country this fall. He told the gathering of the world’s largest economies that “this will create new jobs and opportunity for people in both our countries and enhance America’s competitiveness in the 21st century.”

With high U.S. unemployment, bilateral trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama have been considered long shots for ratification this Congress. Members, conscious of the possibility of attacks on both political flanks, are skittish about defending a vote that could be portrayed as helping to ship already scarce jobs overseas.

But with Obama’s backing, the Korea measure’s backers believe it may now have a chance.

At an event this morning, Reps. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), Bobby Bright (D-Ala.) and Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) will launch the U.S.-Korea FTA Working Group to build support among Members.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is reviving the dormant U.S.-Korea FTA Business Coalition to make the case for abolishing trade barriers with the important military ally.

“We have been pushing and pushing and pushing to get this agreement to move forward, and we’re pleased by the announcement this weekend by the president that they want to resolve the outstanding issues,” chamber trade expert Christopher Wenk said on Tuesday. “It creates a new opportunity for us to build some momentum for the agreement. ... We’re going to be pulling out all of the stops to build support inside and outside the Beltway.”

Ahead of Obama’s Canada trip last weekend, a bipartisan group of 50 House Members wrote Obama to pledge its support for the trio of pending free-trade agreements. Those members included Appropriations cardinal Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), New Democrat Coalition Chairman Joe Crowley (N.Y.) and Blue Dog Reps. Jim Cooper (Tenn.) and John Tanner (Tenn.).

“We share your belief that the pending trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama can bring significant economic and strategic benefits, and we urge you to expedite your work to resolve outstanding issues, so that these FTA’s have the support necessary for Congressional approval,” the group wrote on June 23. “We stand with you as willing partners to create and advance a robust trade policy that strengthens relations with key allies, restores the bipartisan consensus on international economic engagement, fosters U.S. innovation and creativity, ensures a level playing field, and above all, puts more Americans back to work.”

The Business Roundtable is also using Obama’s speech to revive its lobbying push for a Korean trade deal, an agreement that the organization’s president, John Castellani, said in a statement would provide “a critical opportunity for American companies and workers to compete in one of the world’s most important markets.”

But not every domestic industry is rallying behind the White House’s latest calls for the trade deal. Critics argue that trade barriers enacted by the South Korean government unfairly limit access to the country’s consumers by beef producers and car manufacturers from the United States. According to Ford Motor Co. spokesman Mike Moran, American-made cars represent 80 percent of the United States’ trade deficit with South Korea, and any new pact could represent “the last, best chance to open the Korean market to imported automobiles.”

“Ford Motor Company is pleased that the Obama administration has committed to negotiate improved auto provisions to ensure that the US-Korea trade agreement will actually help open one of the most closed markets in the world to automotive imports,” Moran said in a statement. “Ford Motor Company looks forward to working with the Administration and Congress on an agreement that provides meaningful market access for our manufacturers, that shows rapid growth of American-made automobiles sold in Korea, and that is enforceable.”

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