By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Tuesday called on Congress to pass a free trade agreement with South Korea "as soon as possible," but offered no timetable for action on two other pacts with Panama and Colombia.
The South Korea "agreement has unprecedented support from business and labor, Democrats and Republicans, and I ask this Congress to pass it as soon as possible," Obama said in his annual State of the Union speech.
But the failure to set any time frame for enacting the other two deals was a disappointment for Republicans, who want
prompt action on all the trade agreements left over from the administration of former President George W. Bush.
"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 earlier on Tuesday at a hearing on the pacts.
"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."
A range of U.S. companies and industry groups have spoken out in support of the South Korea deal, including the United Auto Workers union and Ford Motor Co., which welcomed changes made to address their concerns about market access provisions of the original deal.
The National Association of Manufacturers, the American Farm Bureau Federation, Ford Motor Co, FedEx and MetLife have all testified in support of the pacts.
SOUTH KOREA AGREEMENT
Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, also said on Tuesday they would push for a vote on a congressional resolution urging quick approval of all three trade pacts.
Obama's specific call for Congress to pass the South Korean agreement followed a recent renegotiation to address concerns raised by the U.S. auto industry.
It had complained the original version failed to tear down barriers to South Korea's auto market, while phasing out remaining U.S. tariffs on South Korean cars.
The other deals have been delayed by concerns among Democrats about human rights in Colombia and tax haven laws in Panama.
Obama mentioned the two pacts in his speech, but gave no indication when he would send them to Congress.
"Before I took office, I made it clear that we would enforce our trade agreements, and that I would only sign deals that keep faith with American workers, and promote American jobs. That's what we did with Korea, and that's what I intend to do as we pursue agreements with Panama and Colombia, and continue our Asia Pacific and global trade talks," he said.
Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said the United States needed to quickly enact all three pacts or it risked falling behind competitors such as the European Union and Canada that are aggressively pursuing new deals.
"The rest of world is moving forward without us, at the expense of America's workforce. For example, Caterpillar is waiting to export more bulldozers made in Illinois to Colombia under a free trade agreement signed in 2006 but never implemented," Grassley said.
The Obama administration is negotiating a regional free trade agreement with eight other countries in the Asia Pacific region that it hopes to substantially complete by the time it hosts the annual APEC leaders summit in November.
Some trade analysts also see a window of opportunity this year for the United States and other countries to conclude the long-running Doha round of world trade talks.