Obama administration ready to move ahead with trade deals

Senior Obama administration officials on Tuesday discussed the timeline for sending renegotiated free trade agreements with Panamá, Colombia and South Korea to Congress for consideration.

After several years of delay, the U.S.-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement as well as free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea appear to be on track for consideration by Congress.

The recent ratification by Panama of a tax treaty removed a major hurdle in a sequence of steps that officials say clears the way for discussions with U.S. lawmakers about the agreements.

Miriam Sapiro is the deputy U. S. trade representative. “They have done a number of things that make us now in a strong position to begin the informal process of walking through the agreement with the Congress,” she said.

Ms. Sapiro said steps Panamá has taken include actions to eliminate remaining restrictions on labor rights as well as legal reforms connected to collective bargaining rights and protections for workers.

At the White House next week, President Obama and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli are expected to discuss next steps for the U.S.-Panama accord, and a new regional security initiative.

Dan Restrepo is senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs on the National Security Council. “The meeting and moving forward on the agreement underscore the historic relationship between the U.S. and Panamá, one of our closest allies,” he said.

But administration officials are not being specific about the
timeline for bringing the trade accords up in Congress. There has been opposition on Capitol Hill to including all three agreements in a single legislative package.

In Tuesday’s telephone news conference, officials said the Panamá and South Korea accords are at a stage where the process of formulating legislation with members of Congress can begin.

But the administration wants to ensure that the Colombian government is meeting specific goals.

That plan, aimed at legal reforms to strengthen rights and protections for workers and labor organizers, was a topic of discussions President Obama had earlier this month at the White House with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos.

Michael Froman, Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economic Affairs, told reporters on Tuesday that the Obama administration does not see requiring Colombia to achieve all of the milestones and deadlines in the plan.

He said the United States will evaluate Colombia’s progress on its commitments and make a judgment, adding that a timeline will depend on consultations with congressional leaders on how to “sequence, time and package” the accords and related issues.

Although many members of President Obama’s Democratic Party support the trade deals, some Democrats continue to voice concerns. Rep. Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat, says more work needs to be done with legal changes and reforms in Colombia regarding worker rights.

Tuesday, Rep. Mike Michaud, a Maine Democrat, issued a statement calling all three agreements flawed, adding that he and others in Congress would work to defeat them.

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