Many U.S. House Democrats want trade policy revamp

WASHINGTON Wed Jun 24, 2009 6:19pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Political pressure grew on President Barack Obama to reconsider pending trade deals with Panama, Colombia and South Korea as over 100 lawmakers called on Wednesday for a massive revamp of U.S. trade policy.

The 106 lawmakers, most of them members of Obama's Democratic party, introduced legislation requiring a comprehensive review of the economic impact of existing major trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada, before any new ones are considered.

The legislation introduced on Wednesday, called the Trade Act, also stipulates environmental and labor standards and provisions for food and product safety and human rights protections that lawmakers say were omitted from previous trade deals and now must be included.

Obama, during his presidential campaign, said he favored changing NAFTA to include stronger labor and environmental protections that many members of his party wanted. But after he became president, his top trade official, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, said this was not necessary.

Many Democrats on Capitol Hill, however, are unhappy about manufacturing job losses that they blame on trade pacts such as NAFTA and say they do not want to approve any more agreements without some safeguards.

"The idea of another trade bill, we can hardly bear the thought," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat and chairwoman of the powerful House Rules Committee.

"We are not going to do it again," she told a news conference, adding that they had requested meetings with Obama and Kirk about trade policy.

Trade deals with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea were negotiated by the Bush administration, but must be ratified by Congress before they can go into effect.

The House legislation "sets a clear standard for where House Democrats are on trade," said Bill Holland, a spokesman for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group that supports the bill.

"Those three (pending) agreements are built on the NAFTA model, and today's introduction of the Trade Act is a clear rejection of that model and a call for change," he said.

Obama has moved slowly on trade while pushing more forcefully on domestic concerns like healthcare reform and climate change legislation. Last week, a senior Republican accused the Democratic president of stalling on the three pending deals.

Obama is expected to deliver a speech sometime soon outlining his views on trade. Asked if there would be any similarities with Trade Act, Maine Democrat Michael Michaud said he did not know.

"All I can tell you is .. this (legislation) is similar to what he campaigned on," he told reporters.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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