President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the end of the North American Leaders Summit in Toluca, Mexico, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. The leaders of the three North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) nations met in part to highlight the economic cooperation that has grown since NAFTA joined the U.S., Canada and Mexico 20 years ago. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)AP2014
Pressed by North American allies on an array of politically fraught issues, President Barack Obama on Wednesday vowed to press ahead with stalled efforts to expand trade agreements for the Americas into Asia and overhaul fractured U.S. immigration laws. But Obama made no promises to frustrated Canadian leaders about his long-anticipated decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.
Closing a day of talks with the leaders of Mexico and Canada, Obama said the North American partners must maintain their "competitive advantage" on trade, in part by expanding into the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region. While Obama acknowledged that "elements in my party" oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, he disputed the notion that Democratic concerns would derail the agreement.
"We'll get this passed if it's a good agreement," Obama declared during a joint news conference with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The North America Leaders' Summit — often referred to as the "Three Amigos" meeting — coincided with the 20th year of the North American Free Trade Agreement among the three countries, a deal that has vastly expanded cross-border commerce in the region but which remains a contentious issue in the United States over its impact on jobs and on environmental protections.
Trade experts say the agreement is due for an upgrade to take into account the current globalized environment and to address issues not touched in the original pact. But rather than reopen NAFTA, the three countries are instead relying on negotiations underway to complete the TPP, which is a trade bloc of 12 countries in the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.
Peña Nieto heralded the "innovative spirit" that spurred NAFTA and said new trade agreements "are bound to go beyond and enhance all together the progress that each one of our countries has made." And Harper made clear that he was "focused on bringing those negotiations to a successful conclusion."
Despite the widespread agreement on trade, there were some sources of tension between the North American partners on immigration and the Keystone XL pipeline, both sensitive political issues in the United States.
In Mexico, government officials and the public alike are eager for progress in overhauling U.S. immigration laws. The prospects for sweeping legislation this year has dimmed in recent weeks, with many House Republicans unwilling to tackle the issue in a midterm election year.
Still, Obama declared: "Immigration reform remains one of my highest priorities."
For Canada, a source of frustration with the U.S. has been the Obama administration's long and drawn out review of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from tar sands in western Canada 1,179 miles to Nebraska, where existing pipelines would then carry the crude to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Canada has been pushing the U.S. for years to approve the pipeline, but environmental groups oppose it, and Obama has said he won't approve it if it increases greenhouse gas emissions.
A Nebraska judge on Wednesday struck down a law that allowed the pipeline to proceed through the state, a victory for opponents who have tried to block the project.
While Obama acknowledged that the U.S. review has been "extensive," he defended the process, saying "these are how we make these decisions about something that could potentially have significant impact on America's national economy and our national interests."
A final decision on Keystone isn't expected until this summer, at the earliest, meaning the verdict could potentially come in the run-up to November's midterm elections, in which energy issues are likely to be a factor in some key races.
Harper, an ardent supporter of the pipeline, said the U.S. State Department's review was definitive in determining the pipeline won't increase emissions.
"My views in favor of the project are very well known," Harper said.
Events elsewhere in the world competed for the leaders' attention, most notably the violence that erupted in Ukraine as the government of President Viktor Yanukovych cracked down on protesters. Obama warned that there would be consequences if the clashes continued. Obama cautiously noted reports of a truce between the president and the protesters, saying it "could provide space for the sides to resolve their disagreements peacefully."
Obama spent just about nine hours in Toluca, the Mexican leader's hometown, with Air Force One touching down Wednesday afternoon and returning to Washington shortly after the evening news conference.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.