- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

A top U.S. trade official yesterday reported “good progress” in free-trade agreement talks with South Korea, saying the Bush administration could have a pact ready in time for congressional consideration before the president’s expedited trade authority expires.

A senior House Democrat, though, stressed that the administration must come through with specific breakthroughs in negotiations.

The administration must notify Congress by the end of March that it has reached agreement for the deal to be approved before the June 30 expiration of Mr. Bush’s “trade promotion authority,” which allows submission of agreements to Congress for an up-or-down vote without changes.

Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler, speaking to reporters after the sixth round of talks, held in South Korea, said a seventh round of talks would be held next month.

That round of talks is expected to be held in the Washington area. Mrs. Cutler said there might be additional talks and noted that the two sides also are discussing issues outside the formal negotiations, such as the reopening of South Korea’s beef market to U.S. exports.

When asked about the chances of reaching agreement in time to meet the congressional deadline, she said a deal is “doable.”

Another U.S. trade official yesterday cited a “change in the tone” of the talks, saying there is a real sense on both sides that the agreement should be reached.

The president’s trade promotion authority is considered vital to promoting free trade, because it means agreements reached with the United States do not have to be renegotiated because of congressional objections to specific provisions.

Mrs. Cutler cited progress made in such areas as market access and the environment, although a key sticking point is the reopening of South Korea’s beef market. Talks on that issue are separate from the trade agreement talks.

Mrs. Cutler said yesterday the administration continues to make it clear that the trade agreement will not go anywhere unless South Korea fully reopens its market to U.S. beef, adding that she hopes to announce a meeting on the beef issue “soon.”

“I think that Korea understands that the beef issue needs to be resolved if this FTA’s going to happen,” she told reporters.

South Korea banned U.S. beef after mad cow disease was discovered in the United States. Some imports were allowed last year but the shipments were rejected because authorities found bone fragments in them.

The two sides also remain separated on other issues, including anti-dumping language, automobiles and pharmaceuticals.

On automobiles, for example, a U.S. trade official said he did not think there has been much progress, beyond helpful discussions, although he stressed that the issue is a priority for the administration.

Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, a senior Ways and Means Committee Democrat, called for signs of specific accomplishments in a number of areas, including automobiles.

South Korea, Mr. Levin said, has the “fifth-largest automotive market in the world and is No. 1 in how closed it is.”

He said the administration must come up with “specific breakthroughs with measurable results.”

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