WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President-elect Barack Obama wants to win approval of stalled free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, but more work is needed on two of the pacts, Democratic lawmakers said on Wednesday.
“The president-elect wants to work with Republicans and Democrats to get those trade agreements moving,” House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel said during an meeting to outline the panel’s priorities for the year.
Earlier this week, outgoing President George W. Bush said failure to win approval of the three agreements was one of the biggest disappointments of his second term.
Bush lost a showdown with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last year when he tried to force a vote on the Colombia free trade agreement, despite Democratic concerns about violence against union workers in Colombia.
It was never the case that Colombia was “a bad trade agreement,” Rangel told reporters. Rather, the issue was “whether the administration was prepared to insist on the protection of labor leaders in Colombia.”
With Democrats now controlling the White House and Congress, it should be possible to work out a solution with Colombia that resolves concerns, Rangel said.
In the case of South Korea, the main roadblock was the Bush administration’s unwillingness to change auto provisions that many Democrats believe favor South Korea’s automakers, Rangel said.
“If they fought as hard for cars, as they did for beef, we wouldn’t have that problem,” Rangel said, referring to the strong pressure the Bush administration has put on South Korea to open its market to U.S. beef.
Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, in written responses this week to questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, underscored the need for South Korea to renegotiate provisions of the pacts covering trade in autos and other manufactured goods.
“Because the FTA (free trade agreement) gives South Korean auto exports essentially untrammeled access to the U.S. market, ratification of the agreement in its present form would mean the United States would lose its remaining leverage to counteract” South Korea’s non-tariff barriers that keep out U.S. automobiles, Clinton said.
“If the South Koreans are willing to re-engage negotiations on these vital provisions of the agreement, we will work with them to get to resolution,” Clinton said.
But “President-elect Obama has opposed and continues to oppose the KORUS (Korea-U.S.) FTA” in its current form, she said.
South Korea’s government has refused to renegotiate the auto provisions. Instead, it has tried to win approval of the pact in its own legislature, hoping that would put pressure on Washington to ratify the deal.
Rep. Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat, who chairs the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, told reporters on Wednesday he believed that approach was a mistake.
“Korea needs to be renegotiated,” Levin said. “We want a two-way street with South Korea, not a one-way street. Until there’s a two-way street, it’s unacceptable.”