By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration cheered business groups and Republicans on Wednesday by saying it was ready to begin detailed talks with Congress on a package of trade legislation it wants approved this year, including long-stalled deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, in a letter to key congressional committees, said Colombia had met early benchmarks required under an action plan the two countries reached last month to address long-standing U.S. concerns about anti-labor violence in the Andean nation.
"Accordingly, my office is prepared to begin technical discussions with members of Congress on the draft implementing bill" for the Colombia deal, Kirk said, echoing letters he already sent on the South Korea and Panama pacts.
In a call with reporters, administration officials made clear Colombia had to meet additional benchmarks before the White House formally submitted the agreement to Congress. They also said they wanted lawmakers to renew Trade Adjustment Assistance, which provides funding to help retrain workers who have lost their jobs because of foreign competition.
Despite that caveat, Colombia's ambassador to the United States, Gabriel Silva, called Kirk's letter a "momentous occasion in U.S.-Colombia relations. We very much look forward to working with the administration and Congress to seek final approval of the FTA (free trade agreement) this summer."
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said he wanted to work with the White House to pass the trade deals "in tandem with one another, as well as engaging in a broader discussion about America's trade and workforce policies."
Other Republicans welcomed the news on Colombia and said they wanted approval of all the trade deals by July 1 but administration officials say they needed to reach a deal with Congress on the timing and sequence of votes.
SOUTH KOREAN BEEF
In another important development clearing the way for action on the South Korean pact, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said he had reached a deal with the Obama administration to address his concerns about Seoul's remaining beef import restrictions.
"Our long fight for strong, science-based trade rules around the world to open foreign markets for American ranchers -- and keep them open -- took big steps forward today," the Montana Democrat said in a statement.
The Obama administration agreed to increase funding to promote U.S. beef exports in South Korea and -- once the free trade pact has been implemented -- to ask Seoul for consultations on removing restrictions imposed after mad cow disease was found in the U.S. cattle herd in late 2003.
South Korea has reopened most of its market but still bars beef from cattle older than 30 months. The United States says all of its beef is safe and Seoul's remaining barriers violate internationally agreed food safety standards.
The issue, however, is extremely sensitive in South Korea and previous efforts to remove remaining restrictions caused a crisis for President Lee Myung-bak.
COMPLICATED LEGISLATIVE PROCESS
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce hailed Wednesday's developments, which signaled the beginning of a complicated process to get trade deals through Congress.
"In the weeks ahead, the United States has a chance to move forward in a bipartisan fashion to secure approval of the pending trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama," John Murphy, the group's vice president for international policy wrote on the group's blog.
All three free trade agreements are covered by trade promotion authority, which means the White House can submit them to Congress for straight up-or-down votes.
However, both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committees will hold "mock markups" on each of the trade deals, where lawmakers could vote on amendments that the administration could decide to put in the final bills.
The White House would then formally submit each of the implementing bills to Congress for more votes in the two committees before going to the House and Senate floor.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Additional reporting by Jack Kimball in Bogota, Editing by Paul Simao and Bill Trott)