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U.S. senators set March 9 date for Latam trade plan

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk faced pressure on Monday to come up with a plan to win approval for long-delayed free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia by the time he testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on March 9.

"We expect that you will come prepared to (1) identify specifically any additional steps that the administration believes Panama or Colombia should take; and (2) provide a clear and expeditious timetable for moving both agreements through the U.S. Congress," Senate Finance Committee Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, and Senator Orrin Hatch, the panel's top Republican, said in a letter to Kirk.

Their demand came as a USTR team heads to Colombia for meetings with the government on worker rights and violence concerns that have blocked approval of a free trade pact for more than four years.

"We understand that USTR will meet with Panama in the near future as well. We will be eager to learn the results of these meetings as soon as possible," Baucus and Hatch said.

U.S. farm and business groups on Monday said they were stepping up efforts to win congressional approval of the two trade deals in the next five to six months.

Bill Lane, Washington director of governmental relations for Caterpillar, told reporters he was increasingly optimistic the White House would work with Congress to approve the two deals, despite the strong opposition of U.S. labor groups to the Colombia pact.

Obama already plans to send a trade pact with South Korea to Congress in coming weeks.

"It think all three will be done before the summer recess, will be enacted," Lane said at a briefing on a trip a U.S. business delegation is making to Panama and Colombia this week to highlight business opportunities of the pacts.

The delegation also includes representatives from Citibank, General Electric, IBM, Wal-Mart and the National Pork Producers Council.

Kirk told the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee last week Obama had directed him to intensify talks to resolve problems with the Colombia and Panama pacts, which were signed in November 2006 and June 2007, respectively.

In the case of Colombia, that requires addressing deep concerns, especially among House Democrats, about killings of Colombian labor leaders and the failure of the Colombian government to prosecute those responsible for the crimes.

Colombia says its overall murder rate fell 45 percent between 2002 and 2009 as the government regained control of territory previously controlled by illegally armed groups and criminal organizations.

Killings of union members also fell from 196 in 2002 to 28 in 2009, the Colombian government says.

A coalition of U.S. farm and food organizations on Monday urged Obama to finalize the Colombia and Panama agreements.

"Four years of trade benefits for U.S. farmers, ranchers and food processors have now been forfeited by our inaction on these agreements, and competitor countries have taken advantage of this lapse to grab U.S. market shares," the coalition said in a letter. "It is time to bring this situation to an end."

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Eric Walsh)