Top Democrats ponder changing NAFTA

All three favorites for the Democratic presidential nomination have said they will look into changing the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) if elected president.

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Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), locked in a tight race for the Iowa caucuses, offered their views in statements and letters to an Iowa trade coalition of labor, environmental and consumer groups. The Iowa Fair Trade Campaign touted the responses as representing the most comprehensive statements on globalization from the Democratic candidates.

One of his first actions as president would be to seek NAFTA changes, according to Obama, while Clinton said she would look to correct the “shortcomings” of NAFTA, a trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada which was spearheaded through Congress by President Bill Clinton.

Edwards, who has made a critical view of current trade policies a centerpiece of his campaign’s anti-corporate theme, told the Iowa group he also would look into changing NAFTA and other existing trade agreements.

While the candidates have focused on foreign policy in recent days, particularly since the assassination of Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, polls show economic issues continue to be important to voters in the Hawkeye State, something the Iowa group noted.

It cited the 2006 defeats of two Iowa GOP House members who supported NAFTA, former Reps. Jim Leach and Jim Nussle, as reflecting a shifting public view on the issue. In a press release, the Iowa group cited a recent poll that found that by 42 percent to 33 percent, Iowans favor a candidate who believes trade pacts hurt the U.S. economy rather than help it.

Edwards has taken the hardest line against the administration’s trade policies on the campaign trail and he urged the Senate to oppose a trade agreement with Peru that was passed last year. Obama and Clinton both voted in favor of that agreement after Democrats secured tougher labor and environmental provisions through negotiations with the Bush administration. Liberal stalwarts House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) also supported the deal.

The tough rhetoric on trade taken by Obama and Clinton in their answers to the Iowa group illustrates the issue’s sensitivity, and could reflect the influence Edwards is having.

“It’s unclear if Edwards is influencing Obama and Clinton, or Edwards is where the public is, and they’re moving toward the public,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

All three candidates promised to change fast-track law, under which trade agreements are negotiated by the executive branch and can be approved or rejected by Congress, but not amended. The last fast-track law expired over the summer, but the next president, whether a Republican or a Democrat, would be expected to seek new authority.

Obama said he would “replace Fast Track” with a new process that includes an analysis of labor and environmental standards in a prospective trade agreement partner, while Edwards said a new trade negotiating system was needed. Clinton said she would not seek new fast track authority until completing a review of all existing trade agreements and until she crafts a new trade policy.

Edwards also gave a cold shoulder to the ongoing World Trade Organization talks, stating that the “decade-long experience with the WTO. . .evidences too many negative outcomes domestically” to expand the current WTO agreement.