By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of U.S. senators urged President Barack Obama Monday to back legislation requiring the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and a long list of other trade pacts they blame for millions of lost U.S. manufacturing jobs.
"We want trade and plenty of it, but we want trade under new rules. The TRADE Act will help Congress and the White House craft a trade policy that makes sense and learns from our many mistakes over the past couple of decades," Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, told reporters in a conference call.
The bill, which has seven co-sponsors in the Senate, shows the strong opposition Obama could face from many members of his own Democratic Party if he pushes for new trade agreements without addressing concerns about past trade pacts. Six Democrats are among the co-sponsors, as well as independent Bernie Sanders.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a speech on Monday at a World Trade Organization meeting in Geneva that the United States was "ready to move into the endgame" of the eight-year-old world trade talks if other countries made meaningful market-opening commitments.
The proposed Trade Reform, Accountability, Development, and Employment Act requires the U.S. Government Accountability Office to evaluate the impact of NAFTA, which groups the United States, Canada and Mexico, and other trade deals on U.S. jobs, wages and business investment and for the White House to give Congress a plan for renegotiating those pacts.
The United States has free trade deals in force with Canada, Mexico, Australia, Singapore, Chile, Peru and 11 other countries and has pending agreements with three other countries -- South Korea, Panama and Colombia.
"We believe it's important to require the president to submit renegotiation plans for existing agreements prior to negotiating new agreements and prior to the congressional consideration of agreement that's are now pending," Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said.
Brown first introduced the TRADE Act during the height of the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign, when Obama often told supporters he wanted to renegotiate NAFTA.
SIMILAR BILL IN HOUSE
It would effectively require 60 votes in the 100-member Senate for approval of free trade agreements by mandating they meet certain criteria on labor, environment, investment, food and product safety and U.S. rights to slap duties on imports it believes are unfairly priced.
A similar bill this year in the House of Representatives already has 127 co-sponsors, or more than one-fourth of that body's voting membership.
Obama has backed off promises to renegotiate NAFTA and said recently he wanted the United States to re-engage in talks on a regional free trade agreement in the Asia Pacific.
He also promised to work to win congressional approval of a free trade agreement with South Korea negotiated by the administration of former President George W. Bush.
Brown and Dorgan said it would be a mistake for Obama to send the South Korea agreement to Congress, even if he negotiated side deals to address automotive and other concerns that critics have raised about the pact.
"I can't for the life of me understand why we would want to pass a Bush-negotiated trade agreement, even with some side agreements that might sweeten the pot a little bit. ... I don't think the president will move on that. I think he will have great opposition if he does," Brown said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Peter Cooney)