Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said he will support a pending free-trade agreement with South Korea after the Obama administration said it will pursue talks with the Asian nation on beef sales.
Baucus, whose committee has jurisdiction over trade, had faulted President Barack Obama’s administration for failing to win promises from South Korea to drop restrictions on beef from older cattle. He said today that a U.S. request for talks was enough to win his support.
“Our long fight for strong, science-based trade rules around the world to open foreign markets for American ranchers -- and keep them open -- took big steps forward today,” Baucus, a Montana Democrat, said in a statement. “Korea’s age restriction on U.S. beef is both scientifically unjustified and inconsistent with international standards.”
The U.S. Trade Representative’s office said today it is ready to begin talks with Congress tomorrow on legislation supporting pending free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. While two deals were ready, lawmakers refused to consult until Colombia accord was completed, an administration official told reporters today on a conference call.
“Colombia has taken the necessary steps” to meet labor goals set by the U.S., Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman, said in a statement. Colombia hired new labor inspectors and passed legislation to crack down on fraudulent cooperatives. The Colombia deal won’t be submitted to Congress before June 15, the next deadline for labor protections Colombia agreed to adopt, a second U.S. official said.
“I look forward to working with the administration to pass these trade agreements in tandem,” House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said today in a statement.
Baucus remained a leading opponent of the South Korea deal after Ford Motor Co. and the United Auto Workers union accepted assurances the Obama administration negotiated last year on trade in vehicles. Baucus said in August that “all ages, all cuts” of beef would need to be allowed into Korea before he would take up the trade accord. The beef restrictions aren’t part of the trade agreement, and the talks will be held under a separate beef deal reached in 2008.
The U.S. said it will ask South Korea’s government to start negotiations on the beef protocols after the trade agreement takes effect. The U.S. also will provide increased funding through the Department of Agriculture to boost exports of beef into Korea, Baucus said.
John Brinkley, a spokesman for the Korean embassy in Washington, declined to comment.
U.S. exports of beef more than doubled to $495 million in 2010, recovering from a collapse triggered by the outbreak of mad-cow disease that sickened animals in 2003, according to Commerce Department data. Australia and Canada are pursuing their own free-trade agreements with South Korea, and without the quick implementation of the U.S. deal, their suppliers may gain on U.S. producers, according to the American Meat Institute.
U.S. beef has become a political issue in Korea. President Lee Myung Bak had to apologize in 2008 after agreeing to allow imports, a decision that triggered candlelight vigils by tens of thousands of people concerned about food safety. The protests prompted U.S. producers to limit exports to cattle younger than 30 months, which may have a lower risk for mad-cow disease.
More than 90 percent of U.S. beef exports come from animals younger than 30 months, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, based in Centennial, Colorado.
Congressional consultations on legislation for each agreement starts a process for getting a vote on the deals under so-called fast-track authority. That procedure imposes deadlines for committees and the House and Senate to consider and vote on the deals, without amendment or filibuster.
The AFL-CIO labor federation, an ally of the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress, opposes the three deal. The United Auto Workers union supports the Korea pact.
“Today marks a momentous occasion in U.S.-Colombia relations,” said Gabriel Silva, Colombian ambassador to the U.S.