MIAMI – Amid signs that Americans are more skeptical about free trade, President Bush pressed Congress on Friday to act on four commercial pacts with other nations, arguing they would invigorate the U.S. economy and create jobs.
The president said the deals with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea also would encourage democratic progress in regions critical to U.S. security.
“It is the time to move forward with these pro-growth, pro-democracy agreements,” Bush said. “And the stakes are high.”
Bush’s speech, to business and community leaders in a city that is the hub of U.S. commerce with Latin America, capped a week of intense campaigning by top administration officials to reignite the president’s free-trade agenda.
It also came during a week of good trade news for him. Costa Rican voters backed a trade agreement with the United States, and record U.S. exports in August shrank the trade deficit to its lowest level since January.
Bush has implemented trade deals with 11 counties, most in Central and South America. But World Trade Organization talks that would more dramatically open global markets have stagnated. He also confronts waning enthusiasm for free trade domestically and opposition from key congressional Democrats to three of the pending trade agreements.
The pact with Peru, which a Senate committee recently approved, is likely to clear Congress this year.
But the Panama deal ran aground when the country’s legislature elected a leader who is wanted in the United States for murder. And leading Democrats may block the accord with Colombia because they say the country has not done enough to combat violence within its borders.
The deal with South Korea also has encountered stiff opposition from Democrats, who say it would fail to pry open that country’s market for U.S. beef and autos, among other products.
“I think the administration is quite concerned and being realistic that they’ve got a major boulder to push up this hill,” said Mickey Kantor, who as President Clinton’s top trade negotiator in 1993 helped cajole Congress into passing the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement.
Kantor faulted Bush for not vigorously making the case for free trade.
“I’m delighted the president is going out and trying to push, but he has not been engaged over the seven years now,” he said.
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