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Republicans, business urge Obama to act on trade

By Doug Palmer and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans and business leaders on Thursday pressed President Barack Obama to make good on his goal of doubling exports by moving quickly to win congressional approval of long-delayed trade pacts with Panama, Colombia and South Korea.

The Republicans noted that Obama had stopped short of asking lawmakers to approve the waiting trade deals, even though he called for closer trade ties with these countries during his State of the Union speech on Wednesday evening.

Obama also outlined a new national export initiative aimed at getting more farmers and small businesses involved in trade with the goal of doubling exports over five years.

Republican Representative David Dreier said he asked White House economic adviser Larry Summers right after Obama's speech when the trade pacts with Panama, Colombia and South Korea would be sent to Congress for a vote.

"His (Summers') response was, he hoped soon," Dreier told a news conference.

"I said, we are here waiting. Every single day that we wait, we are losing jobs in the United States of America because we don't have ... opportunities to break into those new markets," Dreier said.

The Republicans said they could work with Obama to get the trade deals approved and reform U.S. export controls, another issue the president mentioned in his speech.

The U.S. export control system is meant to keep sensitive technologies from falling into the wrong hands. But has not been updated in decades, prompting critics to say this hurts some U.S. companies unnecessarily.

At a separate event, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis said the Obama administration still had "a lot of work to do" to resolve concerns about the Korean agreement, the biggest of the three deals.

Obama's words about the trade pacts were seen as an overture to Republicans and business groups that have criticized him for inaction on trade.

But he faces strong opposition to the trade agreements from many lawmakers in his own party who have vowed to oppose the deals ever since they were negotiated by the administration of former President George W. Bush.


Democrats complain Colombia has not done enough to stop violence against trade unionist and they want changes in Panama's tax haven laws and labor regime.

Midwestern lawmakers, including some Republicans, are unhappy with auto provisions of the Korean agreement they say fail to tear down barriers that keep American cars out.

U.S. trade officials are "working assiduously with Congress" on how to fix the Korean agreement, Marantis said after a speech focused on U.S.-Asian trade.

U.S. trade officials also met recently with Ford Motor Co President Alan Mulally, whose company is the loudest industry opponent of the Korean pact.

U.S. Wheat farmers -- reliant on exports for half their sales -- said they were anxious for the Colombia pact to pass, noting Canada will soon ratify a similar deal, which would give it a leg up in that market.

"I have no idea what the timeline is, but I think it's a very good and very positive first step to hear that these are part of his agenda, that these issues are on his radar," said Rebecca Bratter, policy director with U.S. Wheat Associates.

Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, said urged Obama to swifty fix problems with all three agreements pacts and send them to Congress for votes.

The council's members include big exporters like Boeing, Microsoft and Caterpillar.

Obama said on Wednesday the United States could not afford to sit "on the sidelines" while other countries are busily negotiating deals.

Reinsch and the Republicans picked up on that, saying the United States would lose to competitors such as China, Canada and the European Union if it does not approve the trade deals.

Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, editing by Philip Barbara)