By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan group of former U.S. trade, State Department and White House officials on Wednesday called for quick approval of trade deals with Colombia and Panama that have been on hold since the start of President Barack Obama's administration.
"We are united in our belief that prompt ratification of the pending Free Trade Agreements with Colombia and Panama is in the national interest of the United States," six former U.S. trade representatives and eleven former assistant secretaries of state said in a letter to Obama and congressional leaders.
The group included former Trade Representative Susan Schwab, who oversaw negotiation of the agreements during the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush, as well as Mickey Kantor and Charlene Barshefsky who both served as USTR in the Democratic administration of former President Bill Clinton.
It was also signed by Thomas McLarty, Clinton's special envoy for the Americas, and Otto Reich, who served in the same post for Bush. Other signatories came from both Republican and Democratic administrations of the past 35 years.
"It has been over five years since the U.S. negotiated its FTA with Colombia and nearly five years since Panama. Further delay in ratifying these agreements risks damaging our relations with Colombia, Panama, and throughout the hemisphere by raising doubts about America's reliability as a partner," the former officials said.
On Tuesday, 67 of the 85 first-term Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives also sent Obama a letter urging quick action on the long-delayed pacts.
Obama, who has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2014, has reached out to Republicans on a number of issues, including trade, since the November elections in which the party took control of the House and made gains in the Senate.
He renegotiated a free trade agreement with South Korea to address U.S. auto industry concerns and has promised to send it to Congress soon for a vote.
But Republicans also want Obama to submit agreements with Colombia and Panama to Congress for action by July 1.
That would strain Obama's relations with allies in organized labor, most of whom oppose all three agreements.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)