May 11, 2011 / 4:24 PM / 9 years ago

Congress poised to pass Colombia deal: Baucus

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top senator said on Wednesday he expected Congress to soon pass a free trade agreement with Colombia despite the continued strong opposition of the largest U.S. labor group.

“We are now poised to approve our FTAs (free trade agreements) with Colombia, Panama and Korea,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said during a hearing on the Colombia agreement.

The Democratic senator praised an action plan that President Barack Obama’s administration negotiated with Colombia to address concern about murders of trade unionists and other anti-labor violence in the Andean nation, which is one of the strongest U.S. allies in Latin America.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said the action plan helped ease his long-standing concerns about the pact.

“The time has come to ratify this treaty,” said Kerry, a Democrat.

But Jeff Vogt, deputy director of the AFL-CIO labor federation’s international department, said his group would continue to vigorously oppose the agreement.

“We feel given the horrific history in Colombia it is essential to see a period of time by which we can verify ... that the murder rate is actually really going down, that we see a long-term commitment to battling impunity and that we see well-grounded sentences being produced by the Attorney General’s office. That is going to take time,” Vogt said.

U.S. farm and business groups, anxious for increased sales in a fast-growing Latin American market, say Colombia has already made impressive strides and the time has come to pass the pact signed between the two countries in late 2006.

JUNE 15 DEADLINE

Baucus said he expected the Obama administration to formally submit the agreement to Congress once Colombia has fulfilled a second set of actions under the plan by June 15.

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro, under questioning from the panel’s top Republican, declined to say precisely when Obama would send up the pact.

At the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had no doubt Colombia would meet the June 15 deadline for additional reforms.

“So this year — early this year — we intend to send Congress the legislation that would implement all three pending FTAs,” Clinton said.

“By adding Colombia and Panama to our existing FTAs, we will create an unbroken chain of economic integration from the start of the Rockies in Canada all the way to the end of the Andes,” Clinton added.

Sapiro said the exact timing of action on the Colombia agreement and two other trade deals with Panama and South Korea depended on talks with congressional leaders still under way.

The Obama administration also wants Congress to renew an expanded trade adjustment assistance program to help retrain workers that have lost their job because of foreign competition, Sapiro said.

Congress approved an expanded trade adjustment assistance program as part of the 2009 economic stimulus bill. It expired early this year and efforts to renew it failed when some Republicans objected to its cost.

The White House wants to work with Congress on a trade adjustment assistance program that at least includes 2009 reforms that extended the program to the services sector and workers who have lost their job because of competition from India and China, she said.

Baucus agreed that renewal of the program was essential for approval of all three deals. “We’re not going to get one without the other,” he said.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Xavier Briand

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