NORRIDGEWOCK — U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin said he’s considering whether to support letting President Barack Obama fast-track a trade deal with Pacific nations that New Balance says could jeopardize 900 jobs in Maine.

After a tour of the shoemaker’s Norridgewock plant on Friday, the Republican from Maine’s 2nd District said he was “still studying” the issue. Experts say his carefulness is no surprise, given a history of skepticism about trade deals in Maine.

Poliquin’s party wants to work with the Democratic president to get a trade deal done, but the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 has been blamed for losses of blue-collar jobs nationwide and in Poliquin’s district, which has a rich manufacturing history that he says must be shielded in trade deals.

“Trade is fine as long as it’s fair trade,” Poliquin said. “Our workers and our companies must compete on the same level playing field as everybody else around the world. Under those conditions, we can beat anybody.”

Since 2012, Obama has sought congressional authority to expedite negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim nations and another trade deal with European countries. It could come up for a vote next week. If Obama gets the authority, lawmakers could vote on approving deals, but they couldn’t change them.

It would increase certainty among trade partners and decrease congressional oversight. Many Democrats are fighting the president on it. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, was among 151 House Democrats who signed a 2013 letter to Obama saying they’re opposed to this “fast-track” authority.

Republican leaders support it and generally support “free trade” agreements that eliminate tariffs and other barriers between countries, but Maine Republicans have been more reluctant.

Former Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe voted against NAFTA, an agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and Poliquin didn’t join fellow House Republican members in sending a March letter to Obama that endorsed fast-track.

Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, a coalition of labor unions, said there’s “a long history of bipartisan skepticism in Maine” around trade agreements. James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said it doesn’t surprise him that Poliquin is being careful on the issue.

Melcher said there’s “a deep anxiety” in the 2nd District “about trade agreements and the vulnerability of American manufacturing” to nations with lower wages and work standards.

In 2003, a study commissioned by the Maine Legislature found that while the state lost and gained jobs under NAFTA, it may have lost a net total of 800 jobs in the wood, food, pulp and paper and metal industries.

The Obama administration has said it wants to support more jobs in the U.S. and Maine by increasing exports to Asia. However, New Balance rival Nike makes all shoes overseas, including in Vietnam, which wants tariffs removed as part of the deal, which would include nations making up 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.

New Balance makes 25 percent of its shoes in the U.S., at facilities in Norridgewock, Skowhegan, Norway and Massachusetts. The company says the Pacific deal could increase pressure to send jobs overseas. The impact could be massive in Norridgewock, where 400 workers largely making between $12 and $14 per hour with benefits churn out 4,200 pairs of shoes each day.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican who has voted for and against trade agreements, was noncommittal on fast-track in a statement, saying if Congress considers it, she looks forward “to a robust debate over the proper role of Congress in regulating international trade,” but that companies keeping jobs in the U.S. should be “rewarded, not penalized” under an agreement.

Other prominent voices in Maine politics oppose fast-track, including independent U.S. Sen. Angus King. Democrat Emily Cain, who lost to Poliquin last year and is running again in 2016, said she opposes fast-track and the agreement, calling it “a bad deal that fails the fairness test for Maine workers.”

Poliquin didn’t go that far, but he said the administration must keep companies like New Balance and their workers in mind.

“My job is to represent these people,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking at.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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