(adds background, Colombian comment in paragraphs 6-8)
WASHINGTON, May 11 (Reuters) - The Bush administration will move quickly to present Panama, Peru, Colombia and South Korea with proposed changes to free trade agreements required under a new bipartisan trade policy deal with Congress, U.S. trade officials said on Friday.
Changes are required in the four agreements because of the bipartisan deal announced late Thursday by Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and other senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
“We’re going to try to do it as quickly as we can, hopefully in the next couple of days,” an official in the U.S. Trade Representative’s office told reporters.
U.S. trade officials, who briefed reporters on the condition they not be identified, said they have kept the four countries informed of changes that could be needed to make the trade pacts more acceptable to Democrats, who won control of Congress in last November’s elections.
It is ultimately up to those countries to decide whether to accept the proposed changes or not. But if they refuse, it would be difficult to win approval of the trade agreements in Congress, the trade officials said.
In the short term, Peru and Colombia face the prospect of losing duty-free access to the U.S. market under a preferential program their trade deals were meant to replace.
Benefits for those two countries, as well as Bolivia and Ecuador, expire at the end of the June.
Colombia’s Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo told reporters Bogota was hopeful its trade pact could still be approved, but if not Washington should extend tariff benefits given to Andean countries for cooperating with the U.S. fight against drugs.
The deal announced on Thursday includes a binding commitment for the United States and its four free-trade partners to abide by five core International Labor Organization standards, such as the right to organize and bargain collectively and the regulation of child labor.
It also makes seven major multilateral agreements enforceable under the bilateral trade pacts.
Other parts of the deal affect intellectual property, port security and government procurement provisions of the trade pacts. One section is aimed at ensuring patent protections do not interfere with the ability of poor people to have access to life-saving drugs.
The labor provisions of the Panama and South Korea agreement were left open in anticipation of the need to work out new language. However, both the Peru and the Colombia pacts have already been signed and Peru’s legislature has approved its agreement.
The Bush administration’s deal with Democrat require the changes be incorporated into the four pacts in “a legally binding” way, the U.S. trade officials said.
Pelosi has ruled out a “side letter” or “side agreement” to fix the pacts. But there are still ways to amend the agreements without formally reopening negotiations with the four countries, the U.S. trade officials said.
While the bipartisan agreement applies to all four countries, senior Democrats emphasized it only eases the passage of Peru and Panama.
Colombia faces additional obstacles because of a history of violence against trade unionists, and there are beef and auto-related problems with the South Korea pact, they said.
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