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Democrat to revisit Colombia trade pact on trip

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior Democratic lawmaker opposed to a free trade agreement with Colombia headed to that country on Wednesday to see what progress has been made on labor concerns related to the pact.

Representative Sander Levin's "purpose is essentially a fact-finding mission to observe first-hand conditions relevant to the Colombia FTA," a spokeswoman for the lawmaker said.

"It will provide an update on those conditions on the ground today in comparison with those he observed during a similar trip 21 months ago," she added.

Levin until recently was chairman of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade agreements.

He has opposed action on the agreement on the grounds that Colombia needs to do more to strengthen its labor laws to stop violence against labor union members and to aggressively prosecute past crimes.

The pact would lock in Colombia's duty-free access to the U.S. market, helping it attract foreign investment.

Colombia currently has duty-free access under a program that must be renewed periodically. The most recent extension, for just six weeks, expires in mid-February.

For the United States, the deal would phase out Colombian tariffs on most U.S. farm and manufacturing goods and require the country to make other business-friendly reforms.

Republicans who now control the House are anxious to move forward on the Colombia agreement, as well as two other pending agreements with South Korea and Panama.

They argue Colombia has dramatically reduced violence on a number of fronts over the past decade.

Levin will meet over the next several days with Colombian government officials, union leaders and representatives from the Colombian and U.S. business community.

President Barack Obama's administration says it wants to resolve problems blocking approval of the Colombian agreement, but has not committed to any timetable for sending the pact to Congress.

The administration of former President George W. Bush signed the deal with Colombia in November 2006 after about 18 months of negotiation. He tried to win passage of the pact in 2008, but House Democrats refused to set a vote.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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