WH Advances US-Colombia Trade Agreement

PanamaThe White House said Wednesday that it was ready to start talks with Congress on a free trade deal with Colombia, setting the stage for lawmakers to move ahead on similar agreements with South Korea and Panama, as Republicans had demanded.

Administration officials said they expected technical discussions to begin Thursday with congressional aides, the first step in the approval process.

President Barack Obama has made boosting U.S. trade an integral part of his economic agenda. The White House had hoped for quick approval of the largest deal, the Korean pact signed in December, but GOP lawmakers threatened to block it unless the White House also finalized agreements with Panama and Colombia.

After months of intense negotiations, the administration settled with Panama last month after the Panamanian government passed a law allowing for greater tax transparency.

That left Colombia as the holdup.

Officials from Washington and Bogota did reach a tentative agreement in early April, when Colombia outlined steps it would take to address U.S. concerns over Colombia’s high rates of violence involving labor leaders and union members. But the administration to wait until the first of those steps went into place on April 22 before send the agreement to Congress.

In a letter to lawmakers Wednesday, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said that while Colombia had more work to do, the country was effectively putting in place the initial phases of the agreements on labor. Therefore, Kirk said, the administration felt confident in starting talks with lawmakers.

House Speaker John Boehner, who has long pushed the president to send Congress all three trade deals, applauded Wednesday’s announcement.

“Now it’s time we move to expand market access for American-made goods in all three of these nations,” said Boehner, R-Ohio.

The administration also said it would act to address concerns over U.S. access to the beef market in South Korea, an important issues for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and other lawmakers. The Agriculture Department would spend more to promote U.S. beef sales in Korea and Kirk would request additional consultations with the Koreans on opening up the Korean market once the free trade agreement is fully in place.

Baucus has demanded that South Korea allow the U.S. to export beef from older cows. The Koreans are reluctant, partly due to lingering concerns over outbreaks of mad cow disease several years ago.

“Korea’s age restriction on U.S. beef is both scientifically unjustified and inconsistent with international standards,” Baucus said in a statement, while praising the administration’s announcements.

The South Korea deal would support up to 70,000 U.S. jobs, according to the administration.

Source: The Associated Press.