US lawmaker eyes early 2011 vote on Colombia & Panama trade pact

[Source – Colombia Reports]

Republicans in the House of Representatives want to work with President Barack Obama to pass long-delayed free-trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama in the first six months of 2011, a U.S. lawmaker said on Tuesday.

“There’s a lot of discussions due obviously with the White House and the Senate as well, but that is our goal,” said Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, in a speech at the Chamber of Commerce.

Approval of the trade deals would show the shift in power brought by last month’s elections that gave Republicans control of the House and more power in the Senate.

Brady, who will become chairman of the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee in January, said the trade agreements have languished for too long under House Democratic leadership.

When the Republicans are in charge of that chamber they plan to push an “aggressive trade strategy,” Brady said.

“There’s no better way to show the rest of the world that America is serious about trade engagement than moving those FTAs (free trade agreements),” Brady said.

He urged Obama to start the process by sending all three pacts to Congress for a vote early next year.

While Obama has not committed to any such plan, there are already signs of possible cooperation next year between the White House and Republicans on trade.

Last week, the Obama administration struck a deal with South Korea to resolve auto industry concerns that have blocked approval of the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement since it was signed on June 30, 2007.

The U.S. Treasury Department also signed a tax-information-exchange treaty with Panama that removed one obstacle blocking congressional consideration of that trade pact, which was signed the same day as the Korea deal.

Meanwhile, new Colombian Ambassador Gabriel Silva met on Monday with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to talk about the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which has been stalled the longest of all.

It was signed in November 2006, over the strong objections of U.S. labor groups and many Democrats who said that Colombia did not deserve a trade pact with United States because of its history of anti-labor killings and violence.

Silva, who was to present his credentials to Obama on Tuesday, has urged the U.S. government to take a fresh look at the agreement. He has argued his country is much safer for union workers than it was a decade ago.

A senior White House official told reporters on Monday they were still working on the exact timing of sending the Korea agreement to Congress and stressed the outstanding Panama and Colombia pacts were on separate tracks.

Brady acknowledged more talks were needed with the White House and the Senate, which will remain in Democratic control.

“But clearly we’d like the president to send all three together and exert his leadership on them all,” he said.

As a backup, House Republicans are exploring the possibility of restarting the so-called “fast track” clock on the Colombia agreement that was halted in 2008, he said.

But Brady stressed they did not want to use that “unilateral” approach to win approval of the Colombia deal.

Fast track, also called trade promotion authority, is legislation that allows the White House to negotiate trade deals that it can submit to Congress for a series of up-or-down votes within 90 days.

Former President George W. Bush tried to use the authority in 2008 to force a vote on the Colombia pact, but House Democrats passed a new rule to stop action.

Both the South Korea and Panama agreement have been covered by fast track since they were signed just before the White House’s trade promotion authority expired.

In the case of the South Korean agreement, that may be challenge since the new “supplemental agreement” reached last week changes the terms of the original 2007 deal.

Brady told reporters he was confident the side agreement did not invalidate the original deal’s fast track protection.

One option for quickly moving the trade deals next year would be to put them all in a single package, Brady said.

If that is not viable, Congress still should consider the agreements simultaneously so they could be voted on individually in quick succession, he said. (Doug Palmer / Reuters)