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Republicans Press Democrats on Unfinished Trade Pacts

Republicans have launched a last minute campaign to press majority Democrats to bring three pending free trade agreements, with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, up for a vote. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, Republican lawmakers were joined by pro-free trade business groups and foreign diplomats at a news conference to urge the Democratic-led Congress to act before it finishes its business for the year.

With Congress headed toward adjournment this month before the November 4 presidential and congressional election, chances appear dim that agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea will come to the floor.

The pact with Colombia has been a key part of President Bush's free trade agenda, which has seen a total of 11 accords concluded so far.

However, after the president suddenly sent the Colombia accord to Capitol Hill earlier this year, defying timing that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi preferred, she used a procedural tactic to indefinitely delay a vote.

In 2007, Democrats, Republicans and the Bush administration reached an agreement on re-opening negotiations with governments to strengthen labor and environmental provisions.

Free trade agreements remain controversial in the United States, where Americans have seen tens of thousands of jobs go overseas, and are a factor in the presidential contest between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.

The Bush administration and supporters insist accords will help grow U.S. exports and create jobs at home. U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Guiterrez. "We call on Congress to do the right thing, to do the responsible thing for our country now, and pass these trade agreements. Get them up for a vote," he said.

At Wednesday's outdoor pro-trade rally, Colombia's Trade Minister Luis Guillermo Plata addressed the concern voiced by human rights groups that his government has not done enough to end attacks on labor unionists. "That's not true. We are making a huge effort. We are making a tremendous effort to fight violence and to fight impunity. But not because of a free trade agreement. We are doing it because it is the right thing to do."

Also appearing were Panama's Ambassador to the U.S, Federico Humbert Arias, and Lee Tae-Sik, South Korea's representative in Washington.

ARIAS: It is important that we all put policy over politics to get these right agreements to the floor [of the U.S. Congress].

TAE-SIK: We are ready to create [a] level playing field, and we are ready to make our economy more transparent and law-abiding."

Louisiana Republican Jim McCrery says Democrats are ignoring clear advantages American workers could expect if the pending accords are approved: "The advantages to American workers and to American business are easily discernable. The only thing that lies in the way is politics, and we thought we accommodated even the politics."

"Unless we avail ourselves of this wonderful opportunity for U.S. workers, and farmers and ranchers, we will find ourselves on the losing end of preferential trade agreements worldwide," said Susan Schwab, U.S. Trade Representative.

A spokesman for Speaker Pelosi says she remains open to holding a House vote on the Colombia accord, but only if lawmakers first deal with economic issues affecting Americans

Colombian officials hope Democrats will agree to bring the Colombian agreement up for a vote in a late session this December.

But there's no sign Democrats intend to do anything other than complete work for the year in late September, prior to the November 4th presidential election, and there are no plans for an extra [lame duck] session in December.