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Lawmakers clash over timing of trade deal votes

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. congressional Republicans on Thursday renewed pressure on President Barack Obama to quickly submit free trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress for action by July 1.

But Democrats accused Republicans of delaying a vote on the South Korean pact, the most valuable of the three trade deals, which Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis told lawmakers was "ready to move today."

The exchange came as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Obama were expected later on Thursday to tout a new agreement to address long-standing concerns about worker rights and anti-union violence in the Andean country that have blocked consideration of that trade deal for more than four years.

Even with the new deal many of Obama's fellow Democrats oppose the Colombia pact, reflecting their strong view that the country still has not taken strong enough steps to rein in right-wing groups that target union workers.

"Unfortunately, the 'labor rights action plan' represents mere aspirations masked as concrete actions, ignoring a country's history rooted with hostility toward the rights of workers," said Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat.

Other Democrats, such as House of Representatives Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, have welcomed the new labor deal and promised to work with Obama to get the Colombia pact approved.

'SENSE OF URGENCY'

Representative Kevin Brady, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee subcommittee on trade, denied Republican were blocking action on the Korea deal.

"Our goal is simply to speed up our Latin American agreements to catch with the Korea agreement. There is a sense of urgency for all of them," he said.

That was echoed in the Senate by Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who urged Obama to submit all three trade deals to Congress "in the very near future."

Asked if the administration planned to send all three agreements at once, Marantis told the panel: "That's a conversation we need to have with Congress."

In addition to the free-trade deals, the White House also wants lawmakers to approve permanent normal trade relations with Russia and to renew expired trade programs for developing countries and workers displaced by foreign competition.

Representative Jim McDermott, a Democrat, accused Republicans of "just plain ugly politics" if they continue to hold up action on the South Korea deal to put pressure on Obama to submit the Colombia and Panama deals.

He urged the White House to immediately send Congress a draft implementing bill for the South Korea pact and then after "a reasonable period for consultation" on possible changes to the legislation send Congress a final implementing bill.

In contrast, Brady urged the administration to immediately begin work with the House Ways and Means Committee on legislation for all three trade deals.

Marantis told the subcommittee he had a draft implementing bill for the South Korea agreement that the administration was ready to give Congress.

But under questioning from Democratic Representative Joseph Crowley, Marantis told the panel the House Republican leaders had not yet asked for the draft bill.

"If you've got it, send it," McDermott urged.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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