Business dials up trade efforts

Free trade advocates are ramping up efforts to win support for deals negotiated by the George W. Bush administration that have been stalled for years.

The Emergency Committee for American Trade (ECAT) will hold a press conference on the Senate steps Wednesday to release a letter from ECAT Chairman Harold McGraw III urging the approval of free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

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Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) are scheduled to attend, along with Ambassador Han Duk-soo of South Korea and Ambassador Carolina Blanco of Colombia.

The letter is in response to President Obama’s announcement last month at the G-20 summit in Toronto that he would push for congressional approval of the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

Both countries signed the accord on June 30, 2007, but the deal has been stuck ever since, mostly because of opposition from labor unions and the Ford Motor Co. Democrats have been divided over the deal, and the chairman of the House panel with jurisdiction on trade, Ways and Means Chairman Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), has demanded that the deal be changed to ensure greater access to the Korean market for U.S. auto companies.

Speaking in Toronto last month, Obama said he wanted lawmakers to resolve objections to the agreement before his trip to Seoul in November for the next G-20 meeting, where he hopes to finalize the accord and submit it to Congress in the months that follow.

“It will strengthen our commercial ties and create enormous potential economic benefits and create jobs here in the United States, which is my No. 1 priority,” Obama said.

That could allow a vote on the deal in a lame-duck congressional session, though some business sources are pessimistic Congress would take up the deal after November’s election.

Calman J. Cohen, president of ECAT, said his organization, along with other free trade advocacy groups and business associations, will be working extremely hard in the coming months to help build support for all three trade deals.

“Our job at this point is to explain why these agreements, once implemented, will benefit our economy, our workers, as well as our foreign policy and security interests,” Cohen said.

Advocates tout the economics of the trade agreements, which they say would boost U.S. exports and create new jobs at a time of high unemployment.

A group of 42 agriculture and food groups sent a letter to House and Senate leaders on Tuesday urging lawmakers to approve and implement all three free trade agreements. They predicted U.S. agriculture would lose exports and thousands of jobs if no action is taken.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, Corn Refiners Association, National Association of Wheat Growers and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association are among the groups that signed the letter.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that failure to enact the South Korea agreement would mean the loss of $35 billion in exports and 345,000 jobs.

If approved by Congress, the South Korean FTA would be the largest, most commercially significant agreement of its kind in more than 16 years.

South Korea is the United States’ seventh largest trading partner and has the world’s 14th largest economy.

The U.S. Commerce Department reported on Tuesday that while U.S. exports increased by nearly 3 percent, a jump in imports caused the U.S. trade deficit to grow nearly 5 percent, to $42.3 billion, its highest level in 18 months.

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Cohen said approving the free trade agreements is vital to reducing the trade deficit and would go a long way toward achieving Obama’s goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years.

“More will need to be done, but this will make a very important contribution,” Cohen said.

The Colombia and Panama trade agreements have also been held up over objections from Democrats and labor unions. Labor groups argue Colombia has not done enough to stop violence against labor organizers in that country.

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