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Obama pressed to seek votes on Bush-era trade deals

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama faced bipartisan pressure on Monday to send Congress long-delayed trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama and rally support for them.

"We need to get back on track by opening markets to U.S. products," Senator Rob Portman told Reuters ahead of Obama's annual State of the Union speech to Congress on Tuesday. "I think it's a critical part of the overall package to deal with this stubbornly high unemployment."

Obama used the State of the Union speech last year to set a goal of doubling exports in five years. He also called for closer trade ties with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

This year, "I hope he will take the next step and say I'm now going to send these trade agreements forward" to Congress for a vote, Portman said.

Portman, who was elected to the Senate in November, launched negotiations on the South Korea trade agreement back in 2006, when he was chief U.S. trade negotiator under former President George W. Bush.

The Ohio Republican said he was working with Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, on a sense of the Congress resolution urging passage of all three of the delayed trade deals.

On Tuesday, Obama is widely expected to say he plans to submit the Korea agreement to Congress for a vote, following recent changes his administration negotiated to the pact to address U.S. auto industry concerns.

It's unclear what Obama will do about the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements, which were negotiated by the Bush administration and opposed by many House Democrats.

In an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, a pair of Democrats who served in President Bill Clinton's White House urged Obama to push for bipartisan approval of all three trade deals.

"A full throated-campaign for the Korea, Colombia and Panama trade agreements, along with WTO (World Trade Organization) for Russia, can help reset this presidency," Thomas "Mack" McLarty and Nelson Cunningham said.

McLarty was Clinton's chief of staff from 1993-1994 and Cunningham was an aide to Clinton and Senator Joe Biden before Biden became vice president.

Colombia is the most controversial of the two Latin America agreements because of that country's history of violence against labor union members.

Supporters of the pact argue that violence was greatly reduced under President Alvaro Uribe, who left office last year.

Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzon, a former union leader, is in Washington this week to meet with U.S. lawmakers and Obama administration officials about the pact.

The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on Tuesday on all three agreements, in a sign of Republican interest in advancing the pacts.

Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said he was would travel to Colombia in February to discuss issues that held up approval of the agreement.

"We have delayed action on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement for too long. Now is the time to resolve outstanding issues and approve the Free Trade Agreement so American ranchers, farmers and workers can have a chance to compete," Baucus said.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer, editing by Stacey Joyce)