* Business groups see “light at end of the tunnel”
* Caterpillar “100-percent certain” time has come
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, April 8 (Reuters) - A new U.S. deal with Colombia to address longstanding labor concerns should clear the way for Congress to pass three long-stalled free trade agreements by July, industry officials said on Friday.
After waiting years for action on the pacts, “we can see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Chris Garza, senior director for congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, told reporters.
“There is real momentum and real cause for optimism,” said Laura Lane, senior vice president for international government affairs at Citigroup (C.N).
President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manual Santos gave their approval on Thursday to a deal to address Democratic Party concerns about workers rights and anti-union violence in the Andean country. [ID:nN07247051]
The AFL-CIO labor federation and other groups such as Public Citizen say the plan falls short of what is needed to stop killings of trade unionists and prosecute those responsible for the crimes.
Many Democrats also remain opposed to the Colombia deal, although others such as House of Representatives Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry support it.
Business officials said the action plan showed Obama was serious about moving the trade deal and two other pacts with South Korea and Panama. All three were signed during 2006 and 2007, when George W. Bush was president.
Obama criticized the trade deals during his 2008 campaign for the White House, but has slowly moved to embrace them since taking office. That process accelerated after Republicans won control of the House in November and began demanding action on all three agreements by July 1.
Bill Lane, Washington director for Caterpillar (CAT.N), said he was “100 percent certain” the Obama administration was now also committed to action on all three deals by July.
Lane and the other business officials said they planned a major push to win approval of the pacts.
“I think we feel confident, but realize the hard work really begins now in terms of getting these FTAs done,” said Dell Renigar, GE’s (GE.N) senior counsel for international trade policy and trade regulation.
Part of that effort will require persuading Republicans to approve expanded worker retraining benefits under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program similar to those that expired this year, Lane said.
Many newly elected Republicans associated with the Tea Party are budget hawks who are skeptical of the need for the program, which long has been used as a sweetener to get Democratic votes for trade agreements. (Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Xavier Briand)