January 26, 2011 1:40 am

Congress urged to expedite pending trade deals

Congress should consider all three pending US free trade agreements – with South Korea, Colombia and Panama – in the next six months, the top Republican lawmaker responsible for tax and trade policy in the House of Representatives has said.

In setting a timeframe for congressional approval of the three trade deals, Dave Camp, chairman of the ways and means committee, challenged the Obama administration to ramp up its trade policy in the coming months more aggressively than it or congressional Democrats may want.

“The three free trade agreements are a surefire way to create American jobs by growing US exports of goods and services – and it does not require one dime of new government spending,” Mr Camp said at the first hearing of the committee dedicated to international trade.

Trade is expected to be one area of potential compromise between the White House and the new Republican majority in the House – and hopes have risen that the three deals, which have languished in Congress since being first agreed by the George W. Bush administration, could be approved this year.

In December, the Obama administration negotiated changes to the largest and most high-profile deal with South Korea that made the agreement more palatable to the US auto industry and removing a key obstacle to passage.

But while the South Korea deal now appears on course for Congressional approval, many Democrats believe that each individual agreement should be considered separately – and more fixes may still be required to the FTAs with Colombia and Panama.

“We believe that each trade agreement should be considered on its own merits, not lumped together where key issues are ignored, as some would be willing to do,” said Sandy Levin, the top Democrat on the ways and means committee.

Congress cannot move ahead with a bill implementing a free trade agreement unless it is submitted to lawmakers by the White House, meaning the administration has the upper hand in setting the tempo of approval of any deal. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Ron Kirk, the US trade representative, declined to comment on Mr Camp’s remarks.

In December, Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary, said President Barack Obama aims to “resolve outstanding issues” with Colombia and Panama. “The USTR office is working to do so for the express purpose of moving each agreement forward at the right time for Congress’s consideration,” Mr Gibbs said.

Tuesday’s hearing did not include testimony from Obama administration officials – with all five witnesses coming from the business community. Roy Paulson, representing the National Association of Manufacturers, said, “If we don’t move now, it shows we are not open for business in this country.”

“We need to move forward, if we don’t we’ll be at a competitive disadvantage,” added Bob Stallman, President of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

In his opening statement, Mr Camp said he hoped Mr Obama would make a pledge to move ahead with the three FTA’s in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.

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