S. Korean President Lee Myung-Bak shakes hands with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
A key holdout in the US Senate has thrown support behind a free trade agreement with South Korea after President Barack Obama\'s administration pledged new efforts to promote beef exports
. Also boosting chances that the long-delayed pact would win approval, the Obama administration indicated further progress on trade deals with Colombia and Panama which the rival Republican Party wants considered at the same time.
Senator Max Baucus, who represents the ranching state of Montana and heads the Senate Finance Committee, has pushed for South Korea to remove restrictions that limit imports of US beef to cattle slaughtered at under 30 months.
\"Our long fight for strong, science-based trade rules around the world to open foreign markets for American ranchers and keep them open took big steps forward today,\" said Baucus, a member of Obama\'s Democratic Party.
\"Working with the administration, we delivered,\" he said in a statement indicating he would support the South Korea free trade agreement and work on separate pending deals with Colombia and Panama.
Baucus offered his backing after the Department of Agriculture said it would commit at least $1 million to a five-year, $10 million campaign by the US Meat Export Federation to promote US beef in South Korea.
The campaign will include \"efforts to inform consumers of the safety and quality of US beef,\" the agency said.
Beef is a politically charged issue in South Korea, where major protests erupted in 2008 against President Lee Myung-Bak over his acceptance of US beef. South Korea was once the third-biggest market for US beef but demand collapsed after mad cow disease was discovered in the United States in 2003.
In a letter to Baucus, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk promised that he would keep pressing South Korea to honor a 2008 agreement to accept beef from all ages, even if the free trade agreement comes into force.
Originally reached in 2007, the free trade deal would eliminate most tariffs between the two countries within five years. The Obama administration renegotiated the deal to give more leeway for US automakers, winning over a number of Democrats who had feared the pact would cost manufacturing jobs.
Obama hopes that the agreement will cement ties with Lee, a US-friendly conservative who has become one of his closest Asian allies. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a recent visit to Seoul promised ratification of the trade deal this year.
A number of labor-friendly Democrats remain opposed to the pact, arguing that it would benefit corporations at the expense of ordinary workers.
But the administration had felt confident at winning over most key powerbrokers in Congress. Obama has said that the agreement would support 70,000 US jobs, an assessment disputed by critics.
Republican lawmakers broadly support the trade agreement, although they want to take action only once the pacts with Colombia and Panama are finalized.
Taking a step to meeting the Republicans\' demand, an administration official said that all three pacts would be ready for technical-level discussions with Congress starting on Thursday.
The Department of Agriculture will promote beef through its Market Access Program, which supports US farm exports around the world. Department officials say that the program creates US jobs.
But some lawmakers have targeted the program for elimination, seeing it as a form of corporate welfare at a time that the United States is trying to close a ballooning deficit.
Advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, denounced the latest beef promotion and said South Korea was right to refuse US meat as it was poorly regulated.
\"At a time when our country is in economic distress, with many people out of work and losing their homes and pensions, it\'s a moral crime that cattle barons are sucking at the government teat to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars annually, including this program,\" said Bruce Friedrich, PETA\'s vice president for policy.