US business groups, hoping to see a “gold standard” trade deal with South Korea in place this fall, are launching a campaign to overcome opposition in Congress to the deal’s provision on autos.

A group of US businesses—including banks, insurance companies, meat exporters and high-tech firms—promised on Tuesday to work to convince skeptical lawmakers that the Bush administration’s trade agreement was worth a yes vote.

The agreement is expected to be signed June 30, and Congress isn’t expected to take it up until the fall. Still, they’re optimistic. “It’s not if, but when” Congress will approve the deal, said Matt Niemeyer, who oversees government affairs at insurance provider ACE Group.

Nick Giordano, trade counsel for the National Pork Producers Council, said the deal was a win for US agriculture and food sectors, and particularly pork producers.

The agreement is expected to more than quadruple US pork sales to South Korea, bringing them from $232 million to $1.1 billion annually, impacting the price of US live hogs.

“This is the biggest trade deal ever for our sector. We’re going to do anything and everything to get this agreement through Congress,” he said.

Companies from the United Parcel Service Inc. to financial firms including Citigroup to air giant Boeing also are part of the coalition lobbying for the deal. Brian Peters of the Information Technology Council called it “a gold standard” for future US trade agreements.

But there also is significant opposition to the deal, not only from big auto companies who believe they got a raw deal but from Democrats who are skeptical that the current model for free trade deals is a net win for Americans.

Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, a front-runner in the 2008 presidential race, and Michigan Rep. Sander Levin, whose home state is the auto industry’s historic base, both insist on greater access to the Korean auto market.

But Niemeyer said lawmakers were, in private, more supportive of the deal. “The response we’ve gotten so far has been pretty favorable, despite all the rhetoric,” he said.

The executives want to see Congress act soon to approve the deal so other countries don’t lock in preferential trade first. “We’ve got the EU and Canada in hot pursuit” of trade deals with South Korea, Giordano said. US agriculture exporters also face stiff competition from Chile, which already has a trade deal in place with South Korea. (Reuters)