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House Republicans seek early trade deal action

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Republicans on Tuesday vowed to press for early action this year on trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia that they said have delayed by Democrats for too long.

"I strongly believe that we should consider all three agreements in the next six months," House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp said at a hearing on the pacts signed between November 2006 and June 2007.

"This deadline isn't driven by politics or posturing. It is driven by the need to create jobs for American workers," the Michigan Republican said, calling the three pacts "a sure-fire way to create American jobs by growing U.S. exports."

The South Korean pact was snagged by objections it would open the U.S. auto industry to more competition, while the other deals have been delayed by Democrat concerns about human rights in Colombia and tax haven laws in Panama.

Camp gave President Barack Obama credit for renegotiating the South Korean agreement last year to address auto industry concerns, and taking other steps to set the stage for votes on that pact in Congress this year.

"Unfortunately, the administration has not taken the same productive approach to the Colombia and Panama agreements. I hope that the president lays out such a timetable in his address tonight," Camp said, referring to Obama's annual State of the Union speech to Congress.

The Obama administration has said for two years it wants to work with Colombia and Panama to address concerns about those two pacts, but has avoided saying when it hopes to submit the agreements to Congress for a vote.


Representative Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the committee warned Republicans against bundling the three trade deals into single package for a vote.

But without committing to a specific timetable for congressional approval, Levin also said he was now more optimistic of resolving Democratic concerns that have blocked the Panama and Colombia deals.

Through the efforts of the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, "there is now the prospect of successfully addressing tax haven and labor law concerns with the Panama FTA," Levin said.

Levin, who recently traveled to Colombia on a fact-finding mission, said he was also encouraged by new President Juan Manuel Santos' approach to anti-union violence and other labor concerns raised by Democrats.

"Throughout my discussions, there seemed to be a wide agreement that the new Colombian government was expressing a different approach than its predecessor on these critical issues," Levin said.

"I believe there is now an opportunity for the two governments to work together mutually to achieve real progress on the ground," Levin said.

The National Association of Manufacturers, the American Farm Bureau Federation, Ford Motor Co, FedEx and MetLife all testified in support of the pacts.

Steve Biegun, a vice president at Ford, said the changes to the Korean agreement negotiated by Obama administration in December were "a truly great achievement."

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Anthony Boadle)