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U.S. aims Latam trade accords to Congress by mid-year

By Pascal Fletcher

MIAMI (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's administration aims to send stalled free trade pacts with Colombia and Panama to Congress by the middle of this year after fresh analysis of the situation in both countries, a senior U.S. official said on Monday.

The administration is coming under increasing pressure from lawmakers, especially leading Republicans, and from U.S. farm and business groups to lay out a fast timetable for winning congressional approval of the free trade agreements (FTAs)with the two Latin American states.

The Colombia agreement, signed in 2006, is unpopular with many Democrats because of strong opposition from U.S. labor groups, which say that country has not done enough to stop killings of trade unionists and to prosecute the murderers.

Matthew Rooney, the State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Canada, Mexico and Regional Economic Policy, said a U.S. team would be in Colombia this week to start gathering information for a fresh report to the president.

"It's our objective to clarify the situation in Colombia, to do a fresh analysis of the situation in Colombia, and also in Panama," Rooney told reporters in Miami where he gave presentations on U.S. trade policy for the hemisphere.

"The objective is to have the FTAs transmitted to the Congress by around the middle of the year, with the objective of having them completed, approved by the Congress, maybe before the end of the year," Rooney said.

But he would not be drawn into giving specific dates, despite calls from one Republican lawmaker for action on the Colombia and Panama agreements by July 1.

The U.S. team visiting Colombia would consult with the government there, labor unions, NGOs, observers and academics and report back to Obama on the situation on labor violence and labor legislation there, Rooney said.

He believed there had been an improvement in Colombia over past years in terms of labor violence statistics. "Whether it's enough is a political judgment that the president and his senior advisers will have to make," he said.

"It's a political process and the question will be decided based on what the group finds in Bogota and what the analysis is of the situation."

RISK OF LOSING TRADE?

In comments published by Semana magazine in Bogota over the weekend, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos expressed disappointment over the U.S. government's failure so far to win congressional approval for the free trade pact.

Declaring the White House "had a divided heart" on the issue, Santos was quoted by Semana as saying that if the agreement was not approved by the U.S. Congress this year, Colombia would "seek other markets".

"There is still life without this free trade agreement," Santos said in the comments published by Semana.

Rooney said Colombia had shown understanding and patience over the U.S. domestic political issues that had stalled approval of the trade pact.

"Whether that will sustain itself if we are unable to complete the agreement this year is another question," he said. He noted that submitting such trade agreements to Congress was a complex process that also involved submitting a package of implementing legislation.

But Rooney rebuffed suggestions that with the delay in approval of the U.S.-Colombia agreement Washington risked losing trade to other countries, such as Colombia's anti-U.S. neighbor Venezuela or fast-growing economic power China.

"We are optimistic that we will complete the FTA with Colombia before the end of the year and then the Colombians will not have to choose," he said.

(Editing by Christopher Wilson)

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