The White House is trying to reinvigorate the lobbying effort on the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, as President Bush prepares for talks next week with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak en route to the Beijing Olympics.
Commerce Secretary Gutierrez, Agriculture Secretary Schafer, officials from the office of the U.S. Trade Representative and Treasury, as well as South Korea's ambassador, convened a meeting Tuesday with about 30 pro-Korea FTA lobbyists to discuss strategy for moving the stalled agreement.
President Bush made a surprise appearance, making brief comments to the group to demonstrate his continued commitment to the effort.
"He stopped by and gave some remarks to encourage the teams to keep working on the deal, pointing out its critical importance in improving conditions for both businesses and consumers in both of our countries," said White House Press Secretary Dana Perino.
Lobbyists attending said they were encouraged that the White House was taking a "more visible role" in advocating for the Korea pact, said Myron Brilliant, president of the U.S.-Korea Business Council. "I got the sense that the president wants the business community to understand he is staying engaged and that the business community should be as well," Brilliant said. "We were pleased to hear that. We need leadership from the administration. We know we're facing an uphill battle but we also know what's at stake."
The administration has professed a Colombia-first strategy in trying to get pending trade agreements passed. Bush submitted that measure to Congress in April, but House Democrats blocked a vote.
By attending the meeting Tuesday, another attendee said, Bush signaled that the Korea deal was not on the back burner. "I thought it was an important meeting because it conveyed a new level of seriousness in terms of getting this done this year," said Matt Niemeyer, senior vice president with The ACE Group of Insurance and Reinsurance Companies.
Backers say the deal would be the most commercially significant trade pact since the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, cementing ties with the United States' seventh-largest trading partner.
According to the International Trade Commission, U.S. gross domestic product could increase by as much as $12 billion as a result of the deal.
Getting the trade pact through Congress this year is still given slim odds, however. South Korea this week resumed beef imports from the United States, removing one obstacle to the deal. But the White House and Congress are still at an impasse over automobiles, as critics argue the deal will do nothing to eliminate a huge disparity between the countries. An estimated 750,000 South Korean cars are sold annually in the United States, while only about 6,300 U.S. cars are sold in Korea.
The issue has united the Michigan delegation in opposition to the deal, which has cemented the general lack of support among Democrats for moving ahead with trade agreements.
Influential Michigan Democrats opposing the Korea pact include House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell; House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee Chairman Sander Levin; and Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow.
The opposition is not limited to Democrats. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., a leading contender to be the top Republican on Ways and Means next year, "still has concerns over the auto provisions," a spokesman said. House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Joseph Knollenberg, R-Mich., who represents the Detroit area, said the auto issue is "very, very vital to me."
"This is not a balanced trade agreement in terms of the automakers -- they're getting killed," Knollenberg said. "The Colombia bill, for example, that's another one that's hanging out there, I'd vote for that one very easily. That does level the playing field. The Korea bill does not."
One lobbyist at the meeting, who asked for anonymity, said the automobile issue was raised. While private-sector and administration officials agreed it was a problem, White House officials said they could not re-negotiate the pact.
However, attendees agreed that "we do not see the auto issue as insurmountable," the source said, perhaps dealt with in a "side letter" to accompany the pact.
Doug Goudie, director of international trade policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, acknowledged that two of his group's members -- Ford and Chrysler -- still adamantly oppose the deal. However, he said the overall benefits to most of his group's members should carry the day. "The opposition of a few specific companies notwithstanding, it's really the greatest trade agreement we've signed in 15 years," Goudie said.
This article appears in the August 2, 2008, edition of NJ Daily.