WASHINGTON, Feb 3 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s plan to double U.S. exports over five years includes passing free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea that have been delayed for years, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said on Wednesday.
“I think it requires we work together to pass strong trade agreements that will expand opportunities in ... foreign markets. We can’t let other countries go and compete away those markets from us,” Geithner told a hearing in the House of Representatives on the federal government’s budget.
The three free trade agreements (FTAs) were signed by the Republican administration of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, and have faced strong opposition in the Democratic-led Congress.
Obama told lawmakers last week in his first State of the Union speech that he wanted to forge stronger trade ties with Panama, Colombia and South Korea but stopped short of urging lawmakers to approve the deals this year.
In the same speech, Obama announced a new “national export initiative” aimed at supporting 2 million American jobs by doubling exports over the next five years.
Many Republicans applauded Obama’s words but a powerful House Democrat, Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter, said on Wednesday they caused her concern.
“I and many members of Congress represent states where workers have been decimated by previous FTAs,” she said in a statement.
Democrats complain Colombia has not done enough to stop violence against trade unionists and want changes in Panama’s tax haven laws and labor regime.
Midwestern lawmakers, including some Republicans, dislike auto provisions in the South Korean agreement that they say fail to tear down barriers that keep out American cars.
Republican Representative Kevin Brady pressed Geithner at the hearing on whether passing the three trade agreements “this year” was part of Obama’s plan to double exports.
“Absolutely,” Geithner said.
“As the president said, it’s not just that. We want to be in the game in Asia as they move to negotiate new agreements there” and bring the long-running Doha round of world trade talks to a successful conclusion for U.S. companies.
Both the Treasury Department and U.S. Trade Representative’s office later issued statements clarifying Geithner’s comment.
They said U.S. trade officials still had to resolve outstanding issues with the three countries before Obama would send the FTAs to Congress for a vote.
“Once these issues are resolved, the administration looks forward to working with Congress on the best time to move the agreements forward,” a Treasury spokeswoman said. (Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by John O’Callaghan)