By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Colombia moved closer to approval of a long-delayed free trade pact on Wednesday with a plan to address worries over labor rights and anti-union violence in the Andean nation.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told reporters Colombia promised to beef up protection for labor leaders and organizers who have been the target of violence by right-wing groups.
The plan also "bolsters efforts to hold accountable and punish those who have perpetrated violence against union members and it makes a number of important steps to strengthen labor laws and their enforcement," Kirk said.
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, welcomed the agreement and urged the administration "to work with Congress to implement all three pending trade agreements -- Colombia, Panama, and South Korea -- in tandem with one another as soon as possible."
However, in sign of the difficulty President Barack Obama will have in persuading many in his own party members to support the agreement, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee said "more work needs to be done" to ensure that Colombia was taking adequate steps.
"The administration has importantly included timelines and acknowledged that concrete action is required to remedy these long-standing concerns. This active process allows us to provide oversight," said Representative Sander Levin.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation that helped put Obama in office, also criticized the plan, which he said failed to establish concrete benchmarks for reducing violence and increasing prosecutions.
"There is no guarantee that the terms of it will in fact lead to a reduction in violence, and no backup plan to delay implementation if the violence and impunity continue," Trumka said. "Concrete progress on the ground with respect to violence, impunity, and labor law reform needs to be demonstrated over a sustained period of time."
Several other House Democrats also attacked the plan in far stronger terms than Levin, making it clear that Obama would have to reply on Republicans for the bulk of the 218 votes needed for approval in the House.
In contrast, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, called the labor agreement a significant breakthrough "that would help restore our leadership position on trade in the world."
Colombia, Washington's biggest ally in South America, is frustrated with years of delays to the agreement and has struck deals with the European Union and moved closer to China.
But Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is expected to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday, told Spanish-language network Univision on Tuesday he was now optimistic the deal would be approved this year.
LINING UP A VOTE
Cecilia Lopez, a former Colombian government official, told Reuters in Bogota it would be "very difficult" for the Santos government to quickly show progress improving conditions for workers and reducing anti-union violence.
"Look at what's happening with the land restitution. Leaders and peasants are being killed, and the government should have known it would happen," Lopez said.
At least 11 leaders of land restitution movements have been killed in the last year and a half, according to rights groups.
Santos is pushing to return land to people who were forced off their farms by outlawed paramilitary gangs and rebels who once battled for control of large parts of the country.
The two countries signed the trade pact in November 2006, when Alvaro Uribe was president of Colombia and George W. Bush was president of the United States.
Bush was unable to persuade a Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress to approve the agreement because of fierce opposition from the 12.2-million member AFL-CIO labor federation.
However, prospects for the pact have improved since Republicans recaptured control of the House in last November's election. They have been pressing Obama to send the agreement, and two other trade deals with South Korea and Panama, to Congress for a vote by July 1.
Obama, after fighting business on a number of issues during his first two years in office, also has moved toward the center on the free trade agreements, which he opposed when running for president in 2008.
The labor plan establishes a set of three milestones for the Colombian government to meet over the next several weeks and months to reduce violence against union workers, prosecute those responsible for the crimes and protect worker rights.
The trade pact would expand U.S. exports to Colombia by more than $1.1 billion and create thousands of additional American jobs, U.S. officials said.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, urged the administration to immediately begin work with Congress to draft a bill to implement the Colombia agreement, a call echoed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, and Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the finance panel.
Obama administration officials said they were ready to discuss with Congress the timing of votes this year on all three agreements, as well as legislation to establish permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Russia.
The exact timing and sequencing of votes would depend on those talks, they said.
Obama also wants lawmakers to renew expired trade preference programs for developing countries and other legislation, known as trade adjustment assistance, that provides retraining benefits for workers who have lost their job because of foreign competition.
Hatch said he was open to talks about those elements, but said there should be "no more preconditions" for sending the three free trade agreements to Congress for a vote.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kimball in Bogota; Editing by Anthony Boadle, Laura MacInnis and Eric Walsh)