- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — The race for the White House will spill over into a two-day summit here today among President Bush and his Canadian and Mexican counterparts as they focus on countering anti-trade rhetoric from the Democratic presidential candidates.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in particular, has been attacked by the two Democrats competing for middle- and low-income voters who blame job outsourcing for their economic problems.

The United States, Canada and Mexico say NAFTA has been beneficial for their respective countries, but they are in the fourth year of an effort to simplify cross-border trade that has come under attack from conservatives concerned about border security.

The three leaders will host a press conference tomorrow that largely will be overshadowed by the much-anticipated Pennsylvania Democratic primary.

“We recognize going into this meeting that many of the initiatives that are discussed … are not going to grab headlines,” said Dan Fisk, the president’s senior North American adviser.

But political headlines may be made if Mr. Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon try to influence the U.S. debate on NAFTA and free trade.

“The leaders will probably use the event to underscore the importance of NAFTA at a time when the agreement is coming under fire,” said Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Both remaining Democratic candidates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, have said they would renegotiate NAFTA if they win the White House.

Trade analysts and economists say they are worried about the protectionist sentiments stirred in the campaigns.

“I am concerned that this cascading political rhetoric — this competition to see who can punch the pinata of NAFTA and trade the hardest — could have very deleterious results to the true economic interests of the United States of America,” said James Bacchus, a former U.S. representative to the World Trade Organization. “I think we need more NAFTA and not less. I think we need NAFTA-plus.”

The White House says NAFTA has tripled the amount of U.S. trade with its neighbors to the north and south, from about $294 billion since its inception in 1994 to almost $1 trillion this year.

With anti-trade sentiment running high in the United States, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, this month changed congressional rules to block the U.S. trade deal with Colombia.

A few members of Congress have led the charge to stop the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, a trilateral economic and security effort implemented in 2005. Opponents have made headway in past years framing these summits as part of a plot to create a North American Union similar to the European Union.

Mr. Bush has repudiated those concerns and last year called them “comical.”

Although the conspiracy theories are not so prominent leading up to this summit, 16 members of Congress have signed a letter expressing “unease” over what they called “a major continental initiative being planned in a closed process without due legislative oversight.”

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