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US-Latin America Free Trade Agreements Moving Forward

Senior Obama administration officials on Tuesday discussed the timeline for sending renegotiated free trade agreements with Panama, 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.

"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 [U.S.] Congress," said Deputy United States Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro.

Sapiro said steps Panama 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.

"The meeting and moving forward on the agreement underscore the historic relationship  between the U.S. and Panama, one of our closest allies," said Dan Restrepo, Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs on the National Security Council.

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 Panama 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 are part of an "action plan."

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.

Remaining concerns in Congress about the Colombia free trade agreement, as well as a separate issue involving Colombia's handling of an alleged Venezuelan drug lord, were the subject of discussions between U.S. lawmakers and President Santos in Bogota.

U.S. business associations generally support the administration's push to complete the three trade agreements.  In particular, officials point to union support by the United Auto Workers for the Korea accord.

But the head of the largest U.S. trade confederation, Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO, recently renewed his criticism of the accords, including the Colombia agreement, questioning whether they would help the U.S. economy or do enough to protect workers in the countries concerned.

In remarks to reporters on Tuesday, Mike Froman said the Obama administration hopes to be able to achieve as broad support as possible in Congress from both sides of the political aisle for the three trade agreements.

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

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

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