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Republicans push for Colombia, Panama trade deals

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's top trade official on Wednesday said he would try to finalize long-delayed trade pacts with Colombia and Panama soon, but Republicans pressed for concrete plans to pass the agreements.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told lawmakers Obama had directed him to immediately intensify talks with the two countries to resolve outstanding issues "as soon as possible this year" and present agreements to Congress for approval.

But Kirk, speaking to the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, said there were "serious issues to be resolved" before the White House would send either of the two Latin American trade pacts to Congress for a vote.

Many of the president's fellow Democrats have been resisting the deals, pressing for better labor rights in the two countries.

Kirk said Colombia must address concerns about labor laws and violence against labor leaders, while Panama needs to make changes to labor laws and implement a tax information exchange treaty signed with the United States.

He said a team from his office would go to Colombia next week.

Republicans said the trade deals have languished too long in the face of opposition from Democrats and said the White House had not followed through on promises to resolve concerns.

The Colombia pact was signed in November 2006 and the Panama pact in June 2007.

"We need action and the time for action is now," said Republican Committee Chairman Dave Camp. Failure to pass the pacts was costing the United States jobs and complicating progress in Congress on other trade legislation, he said.

Representative Sander Levin, the Ways and Means panel's top Democrat, defended his party's handling of the agreements when they controlled the House from 2007 through 2010.

"We should be very clear that the burden is on the Colombian government to act and address concerns that have been made abundantly clear to them for years," Levin said.

Kirk told the panel Obama would submit a free trade deal with South Korea to Congress "in the next few weeks" in the hopes of winning approval in coming months.

That pact was also signed in June 2007 when George W. Bush was president, but the Obama administration recently negotiated changes to the deal to address U.S. auto industry concerns that it too heavily favored South Korea.

Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, told Kirk that all three agreements "need to be submitted in the next 6 months."

Picking up on a point in Kirk's testimony, Brady also warned the White House's hope of winning "permanent normal trade relations" (PNTR) with Russia had no chance of congressional approval before the Panama and Colombia pacts.

(Editing by David Storey)