WASHINGTON A top Senate Democrat urged the Obama administration on Wednesday to bundle a valuable free trade deal with South Korea with two other pacts with Colombia and Panama to meet Republican demands and ensure approval.
"It's clear to me that none of these trade agreements are going to pass unless they're all packaged," either in a single piece of legislation or separate bills considered closely together, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus told U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk at a hearing on trade.
Republicans have been pressing for action on the three trade agreements, which were negotiated and signed during the administration of former President George W. Bush, since last November's election when they won control of the House of Representatives and gained seats in the Senate.
"We need to pass all three of these at the same time," said Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the panel, adding he was "sick" of the continued delay on the deals.
Democrats blocked action on the pacts for years, reflecting concerns of U.S. labor groups that the agreements would cost U.S. jobs. However, most business groups see the deals as a powerful tool to boost exports.
"The administration has no excuse for failing to act on these trade agreements," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said, predicting Congress would pass each of them with bipartisan support.
However, a coalition of labor, environmental and consumer groups vowed to fight the deals.
"We desperately need to reverse direction and protect our economy instead of giving it away to our diplomatic partners. The last thing America's middle class needs right now is 'Son of NAFTA,'" said Jim Hoffa, president of the Teamsters union, referring to the trade pact with Mexico and Canada.
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Kirk said President Barack Obama was ready to send the South Korea agreement to Congress, after resolving U.S. auto industry concerns that the pact failed to tear down barriers that have kept U.S. cars out of that market.
He said the administration also wanted the Colombia and Panama deals approved and was working to resolve remaining issues as soon as possible this year.
But Kirk urged Congress not to hold up action on the South Korea agreement, the biggest of the three trade deals, until the other two are ready to go.
Hatch pledged to do everything in his power to ensure all three agreements are considered at the same time.
"I don't believe the president will ever act on the Colombia and Panama agreements unless these agreements move along with Korea," Hatch said.
Senior House Republicans also want action on all three trade deals by July 1.
The Colombia pact is fiercely opposed by U.S. labor groups, who say that country has not done enough to stop killings of trade unionists and prosecute those responsible.
Kirk tried to assure Hatch and other Republicans the Obama administration was not dragging its feet in resolving those and other labor concerns with Colombia.
"I believe we're closer than many of you think we are to having a solution on this," Kirk said. "We believe we can wrap up our negotiations with Colombia quickly."
A team from Colombia will be in Washington for talks on Thursday, he said.
In addition, the Panama pact is almost ready to go with a little additional work by that country on labor and tax haven concerns, Kirk told the panel.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by John Whitesides and Doina Chiacu)