Doubtful U.S. will pass trade deals: lawmaker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress is unlikely to pass a free trade deal with Colombia this year, or two other pending agreements with South Korea and Panama, despite White House pressure, a senior U.S. lawmaker said on Tuesday.

“Now, whether or not Colombia or any of the other trade agreements will pass this year I think is -- I would say doubtful,” House of Representatives Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters.

The Colombia agreement faces problems because of violence in that country against trade unionists, while the South Korean pact needs to be renegotiated to ensure U.S. auto exports receive “fair treatment,” the Maryland Democrat said.

The Panama agreement is in trouble because last year that country’s National Assembly elected as its president a lawmaker wanted in the United States on charges of killing a U.S. soldier in 1992, he added.

Hoyer’s comments came one day after President George W. Bush appealed to Congress to pass the three free trade agreements, beginning with Colombia.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab kept up the pressure on Tuesday by urging Democrats opposed to the Colombia deal to say exactly what the country needs to do to win their support.

Many lawmakers who complain Colombia has not done enough to stop murders of trade unionists or put their killers in prison “have been reluctant or unable to define” what other steps they want Colombia to take, Schwab said.

“You can set goal posts that are realistic, but tough. You can set goal posts that are so extreme as to make it utterly impossible to meet them. And you can set goal posts and keep moving them,” Schwab told reporters.


Schwab said she was confident congressional leaders would schedule a vote on the Colombian agreement, but Hoyer said there were no plans to do that right now.

“The president has the authority to send it down here and the clock will start to run on that. But I don’t know that that’s useful unless he believes that’s going to pass,” Hoyer said. “Certainly one of the basic workers’ rights is the right to stay alive if you’re a union organizer, and Colombia has had a very bad record on that.”

The Colombia pact is covered by White House trade promotion authority, which requires Congress to approve or reject an agreement within 90 days of receiving it.

The largest U.S. labor group, the AFL-CIO labor federation, is bitterly opposed to the trade agreement with Colombia, which it says remains the deadliest country in the world for trade unionists despite recent progress.

Last June, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other senior Democrats said they could not back the agreement until there was “concrete evidence of sustained results on the ground in Colombia” in reducing murders of trade unionists, bringing their killers to justice and investigating the role of Colombian paramilitary forces in the violence.

The Bush administration says a 76-percent drop in kidnappings, a 40-percent drop in homicides and a 61-percent drop in “terrorist attacks” since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002 is evidence that Colombia has made progress.

Colombia has also set up a special labor unit within its Prosecutor General’s office to investigate murders and other crimes against trade unionists.

Violence in Colombia has been fueled by a four-decade-old guerrilla war. The United States has provided about $5.5 billion in aid to the Andean country over the last seven years to fight the illegal drug trade and defeat the rebels.

Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; editing by Xavier Briand