WASHINGTON — A top ally of President Barack Obama predicted Thursday that Congress will support a free trade deal with South Korea, but opponents hoped the failure to meet a key deadline would lead to a rethink.
Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak said they needed more time to negotiate the sweeping pact, despite intense talks aiming to finalize it before the Group of 20 summit in Seoul.
With Obama pledging to work "tirelessly" to complete the agreement, Senator John Kerry voiced confidence that the pact will enjoy support in the next Congress, in which the rival Republican Party will hold more seats.
"I continue to hope for its prompt submission to Congress within the next few months," said Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"In spite of today's polarized political environment, bipartisan cooperation on KORUS is attainable in the next Congress," he said, referring to the trade pact.
"New export opportunities in South Korea for US companies can generate good-paying American jobs and contribute to our economic recovery," said Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
But many Democrats are deeply skeptical of the deal, along with labor unions and automakers Ford and Chrysler.
Ironically, the Republicans' midterm election victory likely improves Obama's chances of winning approval of the deal, which would be the largest for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
The Obama administration has been pressing South Korea to give greater access to US cars and beef.
While South Korean automakers such as Hyundai have won success in the United States, US cars have a minuscule presence in Asia's fourth largest economy. Many South Koreans are suspicious of US beef due to fears of mad cow disease.
Consumer advocacy group Public Citizen said the deal, initially negotiated under president George W. Bush, may create US jobs in low-paying areas such as meat processing while costing jobs in the more lucrative auto industry.
"Hopefully, the reason the administration is not yet ready to present a final trade agreement is that it has gotten the message that more than 'cars and cows' need fixing," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.
"The Obama administration has the opportunity to make the fundamental reforms President Obama promised during his election campaign, including to remove the investment rules that promote offshoring," she said.
Representative Louise Slaughter, who heads the powerful Rules Committee in the outgoing House of Representatives, telephoned Obama during his trip to tell him many Democrats would fight the deal unless it "protects the interests of US workers and opens markets to American goods."
Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union, called for Obama to "stand tough" on US jobs when negotiating with South Korea.
"We need to make sure that the president's not out there offering Korea a bad trade deal and giving away more of our jobs," Gerard said on MSNBC.
Obama, who has fashioned his trip as a job-creation tour after the election drubbing, said in Seoul that the free trade deal would be a "win for the United States" by creating 10 billion dollars in US exports and more than 70,000 jobs.
Han Duk-Soo, the South Korean ambassador to the United States, said the trade deal was "about much more than the few sectors on which certain stakeholders have focused."
"We need to focus on the benefits it promises to every industry in the United States that chooses to reach for them," he said.
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