- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Softening President Barack Obama’s campaign-year trade rhetoric, the top U.S. trade official said the administration can strengthen provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement without having to renegotiate the pact.

Speaking in a teleconference with reporters, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon “have both said they don’t believe we have to reopen the agreement now” to address labor and environmental side agreements.

Obama himself backed off his election-year call for renegotiation after meeting with Calderon in Mexico last week in advance of the Summit of Americas meeting in Trinidad.

“It would make sense for labor and environmental provisions to be enforceable within that agreement rather than just be viewed as a side agreement,” Obama said at a news conference Thursday. “But I recognize that we are in a very difficult time right now economically on both sides of the border and that those kinds of negotiations are going to need to proceed in a very careful and deliberate way, because we don’t want to discourage trade.”

During the heat of the Democratic presidential primary last year, Obama said he would use the threat of pulling out of NAFTA to open up the agreement to new negotiations over worker protections and environment. The trade agreement is a frequent target of politicians who blame it for lost jobs.

Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas, did not preclude making changes, but he did not venture how.

“What remains to be done is a review of what our actual opportunities are to strengthen NAFTA, and at an appropriate time I will be meeting with my counterparts from Mexico and Canada (to) make some decision on the path forward,” he said.


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