WASHINGTON U.S. President Barack Obama will work with Congress to move forward on long-stalled free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said on Tuesday.
"What you can expect is the president and the administration will work carefully with the Congress to find a way to move forward on those important agreements," Geithner told the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.
Obama opposed both the South Korean and Colombian agreements during last year's election campaign. Since taking office, he has inched toward embracing the deals.
The U.S. Trade Representative's office, in its annual trade agenda report on Monday, said the Obama administration hoped to win approval of a free trade pact with Panama "relatively quickly" and to establish "benchmarks" for moving forward on the Colombia and South Korean agreements.
"It's so important to our country that we sustain a commitment not just to keep our markets open, but that we can find new trade agreements that can benefit American businesses and the American worker," Geithner told the House panel.
The USTR report did not detail what benchmarks would be set for progress on the Colombia and South Korea pacts.
Obama said last year he wanted to see a reduction in violence against trade unionists in Colombia and to renegotiate provisions of the South Korea trade agreement that he said were bad for U.S. automakers and other manufacturers.
The administration of former President George W. Bush insisted Congress consider the three agreements in the order they were concluded, which put the Colombia agreement ahead of the much less controversial pact with Panama.
The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Charles Grassley, said on Monday he could accept moving Panama to the front of the line, "as long as we turn to our pending agreements with Colombia and South Korea right afterward."
As prospects have improved for the agreements, opponents are ramping up efforts to keep them from becoming law.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch division, told lawmakers in a letter on Tuesday that approving the Panama trade deal would undermine efforts in Congress to stop foreign tax haven abuse.
"Panama has long been a key target of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and other tax transparency entities for its resistance to international norms in combating tax evasion and money laundering," she said.
A group of 53 Democrats and one Republican in the House told Obama last week in a letter they remained strongly opposed to all three of the free trade agreements.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan and Vicki Allen)