WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House and Congress could take up delayed free trade deals with Panama and Colombia once work on healthcare reform is done, two Democratic lawmakers who support the pacts, said on Thursday.
“Right now, the healthcare debate is taking all of the oxygen out of the air,” U.S. Representative John Tanner said at a talk on trade relations in the Western Hemisphere.
Obama has made an overhaul of the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry, which constitutes one-sixth of the economy, his top domestic priority.
Tanner said there were compelling national security arguments that make approval of the trade deals possible, despite the opposition of many Democrats.
Venezuela’s move to restrict trade with Colombia over Bogota’s decision to sign a defense security pact with the United States is one, he said.
Colombia, a close U.S. ally in South America, has received about $6 billion in U.S. aid since 2000.
Democrats control the White House and Congress and have been reluctant to push forward on trade deals that deeply divide their party.
President Barack Obama opposed the pact with Colombia and another with South Korea during last year’s campaign.
He has also said he wants to work with Congress and the two countries to get them approved.
Representative Henry Cuellar said he believed a desire to keep peace among Democrats during the healthcare debate was the reason Obama had not sent a trade deal with Panama to Congress for a vote, although U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk indicated back in April or May that could happen soon.
“I still have faith the Obama administration will do the right thing,” said Cuellar, a Texas Democrat. “I think they’re trying to figure something out without upsetting their base.”
Kirk’s office has said it has made progress resolving labor and tax concerns related to the Panama pact.
Cuellar predicted Colombia would be approved if Obama sent it to Congress for a vote, even though it might not get the support of most Democrats.
Critics of the Colombian deal, which was signed in November 2006, say President Alvaro Uribe has not done enough to stop killings of labor unionists and to prosecute those responsible.
Ford Motor Co., Chrysler and the United Auto Workers union say the Korean free trade deal fails to dismantle non-tariff barriers that keep out American cars.
Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Peter Cooney