Colombia trade deal too critical to fail: senator

WASHINGTON Tue Jul 10, 2007 6:12pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior U.S. Senate Democrat said on Tuesday he was confident of finding some way to overcome opposition in his own party to approving a free trade agreement with Colombia.

"We are going to find a way to get Colombia passed. It is very important," Senate Finance Committee Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, told reporters.

The Bush administration had hoped to win early approval of the Colombian free trade agreement, but it faces fierce opposition from U.S. labor groups closely tied to the Democratic Party.

Some Democrats in the House of Representatives want a vote delayed for one to two years so lawmakers can see whether Colombia has reduced violence against trade union members and thrown more killers in jail.

Under pressure from labor groups, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and senior Democrats recently said they could not support the agreement until Colombia has shown "concrete evidence of sustained results on the ground."

Baucus argued on Tuesday it was important to approve the Colombia deal for both economic and geopolitical reasons.

The pact would open up new export opportunities for the United States and strengthen the country's presence in South America, Baucus said.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, and Trade Subcommittee Chairman Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said in May they planned to visit Colombia to help identify steps the country could take to improve chances for the pact.

But no date has been set yet for that trip, even though Rangel will lead a congressional delegation to two of Colombia's neighbors -- Peru and Panama -- in August.

Both Peru and Panama also have negotiated free trade deals with the United States that are pending in Congress.

However, House Democrats have frustrated White House hopes for quick approval of those pacts by insisting both countries reform their labor laws first.

In a letter last week, Peru's President Alan Garcia implored House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to at least begin action on the Peru agreement before the U.S. lawmakers visit.

"Peru has done its share and it is now time for the U.S. Congress to start acting for a prompt passage of the PTPA," or Peru Trade Promotion Agreement, Garcia said on July 2.

He promised Peru would make the required changes in its labor laws "during the implementation process."

Despite that appeal, Pelosi said on Monday she did not plan action on the Peru and Panama agreement until later this year.

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