By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Wednesday gave the Obama administration's clearest statement yet that it wants to work with Congress to approve three long-delayed trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama this year.
"We'd like to pass all of them, alongside trade adjustment assistance, and we want to do it this year," Geithner said at a Senate Finance Committee hearing.
"They're overwhelmingly in our favor economically and if we don't do it, what it means is that business just goes to other countries. It just makes no sense as a country. So we need to find a way to pass them," Geithner said.
Republicans have been pushing for action by July 1 on all three agreements, which were signed during the administration of former President George W. Bush and have languished in the face of Democratic party opposition.
The Obama administration late last year renegotiated parts of the South Korean trade pact to address U.S. auto industry concerns, and has already said it plans to send that agreement to Congress for a vote in coming weeks.
However, many Democrats remain strongly opposed to the Colombia agreement, saying that country has not done enough to reduce killings of union members and prosecute those responsible for the crimes.
Under the pressure from Republicans, who won control of the House of Representatives in November election, the Obama administration has recently begun moving more aggressively to address those concerns, as well as some remaining worker rights and tax haven issues with Panama.
The U.S. International Trade Commission has estimated the pacts would boost U.S. exports about $10 billion to $12 billion to South Korea, about $1.1 billion to Colombia and somewhat less to Panama.
Obama has sought since the Democrats' big losses on election day in November to improve his relationship with business, which fought his massive overhaul of Wall Street regulation and the U.S. healthcare industry and resented his sharp rhetoric on executive pay during the financial crisis.
Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who served one year as Bush's trade representative, welcomed Geithner's statement but added: "We've heard them promise action before."
"Passage and adoption of the three pending agreements would spur economic growth by improving U.S. products' and services' access to markets abroad," Portman said.
Congress should also restore presidential "fast track" authority to negotiate new trade deals that could be submitted for a straight-up-down vote without any amendments, he said.
EXPANDED JOB RETRAINING BENEFITS
A U.S. team led by Trade Representative Ron Kirk's office is in Colombia this week to take a fresh assessment of the anti-union violence situation, which supporters of the agreement say has improved very much over the past decade.
"We want them to be strong agreements. They're not going to pass unless they are strong agreements," Geithner said.
The White House also wants Congress to renew expanded benefits under the federal trade adjustment assistance program that expired over the weekend, Geithner said.
That program, which has in the past been linked to approval of trade agreements, funds retraining programs for workers who have lost their job because of foreign competition.
Efforts to renew the expanded benefits have become entangled in a congressional budget battle and the desire of some Republicans for a clear signal the Obama administration is committed to moving ahead on all three trade deals.
Not all Democrats oppose the Colombia and Panama agreements, which would phase out tariffs on U.S. exports to those countries while locking in Colombia and Panama's current duty-free access to the United States.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, has urged Kirk to present a plan for resolving outstanding issues with the two agreements when he testifies before the panel on March 9.
At the hearing on Wednesday, Baucus also reminded Geithner he was "very serious" about South Korea making further moves to open its market to U.S. beef exports.
"The president shares that commitment and we know how important it is to you. We're working on it," Geithner said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Philip Barbara)