WASHINGTON The Obama administration hopes to soon reach a deal with Colombia to address concerns about anti-labor violence that have blocked approval of a bilateral free trade deal for more than four years, officials said on Thursday.
"We share the sense of urgency that we have heard from all of you," Deputy Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro told the House of Representatives Ways and Means trade subcommittee.
"We want to be in a position where we can advance this agreement. I am optimistic that we will get there and we will get there in the near future."
Sapiro told the panel she would meet again later on Thursday with senior Colombian officials to discuss how to address the administration's concerns, which include the protection of internationally recognized labor rights, prevention of violence against labor leaders and the prosecution of perpetrators of such violence, Sapiro said.
Republicans, who control the House, have been pressing the White House to send trade agreements with Colombia and Panama to Congress for a vote, along with a bigger trade deal with South Korea that the administration already plans to submit.
In recent weeks, Obama administration officials have said they are committed to winning approval of all three agreements but have frustrated Republicans and some senior Democrats by refusing to set out a firm timeline for action on the Latin American pacts.
House Republicans have said they want to consider all three agreements by July 1.
"The administration's foot-dragging on these agreements -- its shabby treatment of these two important friends and trading partners -- is noticed by all our neighbors," Republican Representative Kevin Brady, chairman of the trade subcommittee, said in an opening statement.
But the subcommittee's top Democrat accused Republicans of an "obsession" with the Colombia agreement that is blocking action on all other trade legislation, including the South Korea agreement.
"We should be moving the Korea FTA. Now. But, for whatever reason, House and Senate Republicans have decided that we can't do anything on trade until the Colombia FTA is ready. To heck with jobs, to heck with American families," Representative Jim McDermott said.
The 12.2-million-member AFL-CIO labor federation strongly opposes the Colombia agreement on the grounds that the Andean nation has not done enough to stop killings of union members and to prosecute those responsible.
"We believe it is premature to sign a trade deal with Colombia when the government (of Colombia) is unable or unwilling to enforce the rule of law and protect the security, dignity and safety of workers," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Told about Sapiro's remark that the administration hoped to resolve such concerns soon, Trumka added: "Hopefully they can. If they had done it last year, 51 trade unionists would still be alive."
Supporters of the agreement say Colombia has made important progress on that issue and others in bringing its country back from the brink of collapse in the 1990s as it battled a leftist insurgency and drug cartels.
Robert Hormats, under secretary of state for economic, energy and agricultural affairs, said approving the Colombia agreement, once labor issues were resolved, would boost U.S. standing in the region.
"It will help silence critics who have claimed that we are ceding leadership in the region and are unable to deliver for our closest partners," Hormats told the panel.
He assured the panel resolving remaining concerns was "an enormously high priority at all levels of the administration."
Both administration officials urged Congress to renew two expired trade preference programs that let developing countries export goods to the United States at reduced or zero duties.
One is specifically for the Andean region and includes Colombia, while the other covers more than 130 countries, including many of the world's poorest.
Sapiro also pressed for renewal of expired work retraining benefits under the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Paul Simao)