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Lobbying over a proposed South Korea free-trade agreement has escalated as President Barack Obama seeks to iron out differences over the pact, which has stirred up an array of opponents, including labor unions and U.S. auto giants.
The president has seized on the pact, first negotiated by the George W. Bush administration, as a way to reach out to newly empowered Congressional Republicans who have traditionally embraced free trade. He hopes to resolve outstanding issues this week when he meets with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Thursday at the Group of 20 summit in Seoul.
But even if Obama is successful, there is no guarantee that the trade pact will be a slam dunk on Capitol Hill. Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC are opposed unless a provision related to automobiles can be changed to make it easier for U.S. exports to enter the South Korean market. American beef producers are worried about South Korean limits on U.S. exports of beef from cattle that are less than 30 months old. Organized labor, which spent tens of millions of dollars defending Democrats in the recent elections, fears the agreement will hasten the exodus of manufacturing jobs from the United States.
Those who are working on the matter say they can’t predict how lawmakers will respond to the measure if, as expected, it is punted to the new Congress next year.
“There are extremely difficult issues for both sides,” said Scott Parven, who is leading a team at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which is lobbying for the trade agreement on behalf of the South Korean government.
Parven’s speciality is working with the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democratic lawmakers, who often break with the liberals in their party and support trade agreements. But many of these moderates were defeated in last week’s midterm elections and will be replaced by Republicans. Parven said it is unclear whether incoming lawmakers who were backed by the tea party movement will be as receptive to trade agreements as the establishment, pro-business wing of the Republican Party.
“We will not know until it is on the floor. It makes it a bit mangy. You just don’t know,” he said. Parven added that some may favor free-trade pacts because they bring down tariffs, which some people view as akin to taxes.