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Kirk Pushed by Congress Over Korea, Colombia, Panama Deals

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk was pressed by Democratic and Republican senators to advance three long-stalled free-trade agreements, as he urged lawmakers to approve a deal with South Korea first.

Kirk said the Obama administration is trying to rework pending accords with Panama and Colombia. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the panel, said the three accords should be linked for approval by Congress.

“It’s very clear that none of these deals are going to pass unless they are packaged together,” Baucus said today at a committee hearing. “The time has come, in fact the time is past, to ratify the Colombia trade agreement.”

Kirk said the administration is ready to work with congressional staff on legislation for the South Korea deal, and urged lawmakers against delaying that agreement, the largest U.S. trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement, while completing the Colombia and Panama accords.

“I’ve never seen such a foot-dragging situation,” Hatch said. “If the president ignores the will of Congress and sends the Korea agreement without Colombia and Panama, I will do everything I can to make sure that those two agreements are considered at the same time as Korea.”

The push by lawmakers may upend the administration’s goal to complete the South Korea agreement before July 1, when a Korean pact with the European Union is scheduled to take effect. The administration says it is negotiating with Colombia on labor protections and with Panama on tax-law changes before those deals can be submitted to Congress.

Colombia Visit

Colombian officials will be in Washington tomorrow to discuss the revisions necessary to win approval, Kirk said.

“We do believe they’ve made tremendous progress,” he said. “Our goal is to have all of the three pending agreements, with their outstanding issues addressed, approved by Congress.”

In an interview with Bloomberg Television after the hearing, Kirk said Congress shouldn’t delay on Korea: “I don’t think there’s a compelling reason to wait to move forward with an agreement as economically compelling as the Korea trade agreement is.”

Kirk said the administration is making progress to complete work on a Panama free-trade deal this year.

South Korea is the biggest prize for U.S. companies, as trade with that nation topped $87 billion in 2010. The South Korean deal would increase exports of U.S. goods by $10.9 billion a year when the deal is in full effect, while the accord with Colombia would boost exports by $1.1 billion, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

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