Obama starts new push on trade

The Obama administration is reaching out to business-friendly Democrats to win support for free-trade policies that divide the party.

The effort is part of President Barack Obama's push on trade that was launched with his State of the Union address. Obama said he wanted to double exports over the next five years as part of an effort to grow the U.S. economy.

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The administration's move was reinforced by a speech this week by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on increasing exports. Locke focused on programs that could help small businesses increase their exports, as well as trade missions led by his department.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk met members of the business- friendly New Democrats Coalition on Thursday to discuss the trade agenda. The Democrats spoke to Kirk about pending trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that have stalled in the Democratic-led Congress, according to Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

Moving any of those deals will be difficult because of opposition in Obama’s own party.

Legislation calling for existing trade deals to be re-negotiated has won the support of half the House Democratic caucus. And administration officials from the president on down have been careful when addressing trade matters.

In the State of the Union, Obama spoke of strengthening “trade relations” with “key partners” like South Korea, Panama and Colombia, but did not call on Congress to pass trade pacts already negotiated with the three countries.

He also didn't explicitly speak of the deals, which were all negotiated by the Bush administration. Striking a similar note, experts from Kirk’s speech to the New Democrats posted on USTR’s web site did not mention the three agreements, which are all opposed by organized labor.

In November, Obama said he wanted the South Korea trade deal passed in 2010.

“Trying to boost exports is a fine goal, but until the administration implements President Obama's campaign commitments to reform the trade agreements we now have in place, trade agreements that promote offshoring U.S. investment and jobs and flood us with imports, the possible job gains of export promotion will be swamped by the continuing damage of the failed, old trade deals so many Americans despise,” Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, wrote in a statement this week.

Wallach supports the legislation calling for the re-negotiating of existing trade deals.

Smith said he believes the Panama deal could be approved this year by Congress, but he described the Colombia and South Korean deals as harder sells.

He said trade supporters, including Obama, must emphasize that the trade deals they are pushing include strengthened labor and environmental rules that ensure the U.S. is getting a better deal than in agreements previously negotiated.

Smith added that Obama’s statements in the State of the Union address were helpful, but that the president needs to make those statements more often.

Kirk and the New Democrats also discussed changing rules governing the export of high-tech goods, as well as export programs highlighted in Locke's speech.

A spokeswoman for Kirk said he is working to set up meetings with other groups of Democrats.

Members of the New Democrats sent a letter to Obama on Thursday that said they were “eager” to work with the administration to push forward trade deals that would open markets for U.S. investment.

The letter hailed trade deals as driving more than 50 percent of U.S. exports.


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