WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush does not want Congress to vote on a free trade agreement with Panama before it votes on a similar deal with Colombia, Bush administration officials said on Tuesday after a major obstacle to approval of the Panama agreement was removed.
Pedro Miguel Gonzalez, who is wanted in the United States on charges of killing a U.S. soldier in 1992, stepped down on Monday as president of Panama’s National Assembly.
This created an opening for the White House to push for quick approval of the Panama trade pact before two other much more controversial agreements with Colombia and South Korea.
However, the U.S. officials said Bush had no plans to ask Congress to do that.
“We believe the FTAs (free trade agreements) should be acted upon in the order they were signed,” said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. “Once Colombia is acted upon, we hope to see action on Panama and South Korea.”
The Bush administration still thinks there is a chance Congress will approve the Colombia pact this year, even though the House of Representatives voted in April to indefinitely delay action on the pact.
“The FTAs should be voted on in regular order. And, as the president stressed in his radio address this weekend, all three FTAs should be approved by the Congress promptly,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto said in an email.
Democrats, including presidential candidate Barack Obama, have said Colombia needs to do more to reduce violence against trade unionists before Congress can approve that pact.
Obama and other Democrats also want to renegotiate the South Korea pact to strengthen its auto and other manufacturing provisions, which they say favors Seoul too much.
Army Sgt. Zac Hernandez, aged 22, was gunned down outside Panama City in 1992, just hours before a visit by then President George H. W. Bush.
Gonzalez, who remains a member of the Panamanian legislature, was acquitted by a Panamanian court of being involved in the killing.
The United States signed the free trade pact with Panama in June 2007, and was surprised two months later when Panamanian lawmakers selected Gonzalez as their leader.
Before that the U.S. Congress had appeared set to approve the Panama agreement following a deal between House Democratic leaders and the White House.
That deal required the Bush administration to add stronger labor and environmental provisions to the free trade agreements with Panama, Peru, Colombia and South Korea.
Congress overwhelmingly approved the Peru agreement late last year. But the White House refused to submit the Panama agreement while Gonzalez was still in office, or before the Colombia agreement.
Editing by Chris Wilson