WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Panama, Colombia and South Korea need to resolve a number of outstanding concerns before Congress will approve free trade pacts with each of those countries, a U.S. lawmaker said on Wednesday.
The United States would benefit economically and geopolitically from all three of the agreements, but “there are also outstanding issues that must be resolved before passage can occur,” Representative Sander Levin said.
The Michigan Democrat chairs the House of Representatives Ways and Means trade subcommittee, which plays a key role in congressional consideration of trade agreements.
Levin said he planned to take a fact-finding trip to both Panama and Colombia before leading a broader congressional delegation to both countries later this year.
The administration of former President George W. Bush negotiated all three agreements but was unable to get Congress to pass them before it left office.
The Obama administration has said it hopes to win approval of the Panama deal relatively quickly and to work with Congress to establish “benchmarks” for progress on the other two.
Levin, who believes U.S. trade policy should be a force for lifting labor and environmental standards around the world, said Panama needed to adopt a number of labor law reforms.
Those include repealing a law that bars a workforce of less than 40 employees from forming a union, he said.
“Also, we have to face the issue of tax havens in Panama,” Levin said, raising a concern many U.S. lawmakers have.
Colombia also must amend its labor laws to comply with International Labor Organization standards and take other steps to ensure more murderers of trade unionists in that country are brought to justice, Levin said.
Any benchmarks set by the United States and Colombia to address the violence concerns must be “enforceable” to prevent backsliding, he said.
The South Korean agreement contains “one-sided” automotive and manufacturing provisions that must be changed before Congress will approve that pact, Levin said.
U.S. Trade Representative-designee Ron Kirk expressed the same view at his confirmation hearing earlier this week, saying the United States was prepared to walk away from the South Korean deal if Seoul did not agree to change it.
South Korea exported more than 600,000 cars and light trucks to the United States in 2008 and imported just over 10,000 U.S. vehicles.
Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and many other auto state lawmakers believe the South Korea agreement failed to address “non-tariff barriers” that keep out U.S. cars.
They wanted the pact to phase out the 2.5 percent U.S. tariff on South Korean cars over 15 years, instead of immediately as it now does.
Their proposal would allow South Korea to get duty-free access more rapidly if U.S. auto exports to South Korea exceeded certain thresholds.
Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Cynthia Osterman