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Obama Huddles With House Critics of South Korean Trade Pact

Members of the House Trade Working Group emerged from a private meeting with President Barack Obama on Thursday feeling heartened about the prospects for revamping U.S. trade policy.

“We went to the White House to begin a genuine dialogue because there are trade agreements that many of us could support,” said Rep. Mike Michaud, chairman of the group. “We wanted this conversation to be one that gets away from the same old talking points, and I think we’re off to a good start.”

The Maine Democrat was one of nine lawmakers invited to the White House meeting, which was not listed on Obama’s daily schedule. He outlined for the president changes that he and others in the group want in a pending free-trade agreement with South Korea: clearer labor standards, more targeted tariff reduction for small and medium manufactures, and more focus on trade deficit reduction.

Above all, Michaud said, U.S. trade policy is simply due for an overhaul.

“While I remain concerned about this agreement, I believe there is a viable, alternative way forward on trade,” he said. “U.S. trade policy has not changed in the last 16 years, but it has changed our districts, and not for the better. That’s why making some improvements to the agreement and future ones to limit offshoring of jobs and promote U.S. manufacturing would be a good step forward.”

Rep. Louise Slaughter, who also attended the meeting, called the discussion with Obama “constructive and positive.”

“The existing Korea FTA does not provide reciprocal market access for U.S. companies, which should be the starting point for anything we sign,” the New York Democrat said. “I hope that we use this meeting as a first step for a better trade policy.”

The working group has been critical of Obama’s interest in passing pending trade deals from President George W. Bush’s administration. Obama hit a setback when he failed to iron out differences in the South Korea pact last week during a trip to Asia, but Slaughter praised him for not rushing into an agreement that may not have included enough protections for U.S. workers.

“I’m glad that President Obama stood forcefully last week against a flawed free-trade agreement with Korea drafted by the last administration,” she said. “A bad deal is not better than no deal at all.”

Other lawmakers in Thursday’s meeting included Democratic Reps. Linda Sánchez (Calif.), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), Betty Sutton (Ohio), Gene Green (Texas), Larry Kissell (N.C.), Bruce Braley (Iowa) and Peter DeFazio (Ore.).

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