By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama should look abroad for ways to boost jobs at home, the biggest U.S. business lobby group said on Monday, urging the administration to advance three pending free trade agreements.
Trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama -- negotiated by former President George W. Bush's administration -- have languished since Obama took office, and the United States risks losing ground to competitors, the Chamber of Commerce said.
"We want to urge the administration to become engaged, to stop avoid making eye contact on this important issue," said Bill Lane, government affairs director with construction equipment maker Caterpillar Inc and head of the chamber-led Latin America Trade Coalition.
Since taking office earlier this year, Obama has been focused on stimulating the economy, reforming healthcare and combating climate change, leaving little room for trade policy.
Some Democrats in Congress are skeptical of the free trade agenda, saying it has led to job losses, particularly in the manufacturing sector. [ID:nN18124067] The Colombian pact has also been delayed because of concerns about violence against labor leaders there.
With unemployment at 10.2 percent, Obama has said he plans to hold a forum next week to talk about job creation -- a window that business leaders hope will lead to more emphasis on trade.
Failing to move forward on the three trade deals would put about 500,000 U.S. jobs at risk, said John Murphy, the chamber's vice-president of international affairs.
Competitors like Canada and the European Union are moving ahead on their own free trade deals with the countries, leaving U.S. exporters at risk of losing market share, he said.
Last week, Obama said he wanted to push ahead on the South Korea pact, as well as a broader regional deal with the Transpacific Partnership.
"There were some glimmers on that trip," said Joe Damond, a vice president at drug maker Pfizer Inc. Damond, who heads the chamber's U.S.-Korea free trade business coalition. He said proponents of the deal with Korea wanted to see "concrete steps" on proposals to finalize the deal early in 2010.
It would take months for Congress to approve any of the agreements put forward by the administration, Murphy said, noting the timing would be tricky given the congressional elections in November 2010.
"We are absolutely convinced that on all three of the trade agreements, the votes would be there. We just need to have the chance to hold that vote," Murphy said.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)