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U.S. clears roadblocks on Colombia, Korea trade deals

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Wednesday said it was prepared to begin work with Congress on a bill to implement a free trade agreement with Colombia, after initial steps by the Andean nation to address long-standing labor concerns.

The office of the United States Trade Representative said it had sent a letter to Congress indicating it was prepared to start work.

"We've been waiting for that for a long time -- now we're going to do everything possible so that Congress approves it in the shortest possible time," Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in a statement, welcoming the news.

An Obama administration official, however, said Colombia needed to take additional steps on a bilateral labor action plan before the White House would take the next step of formally submitting the agreement to Congress.

Separately, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said he had reached a deal with the administration that addressed his concerns with South Korea's remaining beef import restrictions, clearing the way for movement on that pact.

"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.

Baucus said 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 the early 2000s.

"Korea's age restriction on U.S. beef is both scientifically unjustified and inconsistent with international standards," Baucus said.

The issue, however, is extremely sensitive in South Korea, and previous efforts to completely remove the remaining restrictions caused a crisis for President Lee Myung-bak.

The trade deal with Colombia has been the most controversial of three trade agreements carried over from former President George W. Bush's administration.

USTR had already signaled its desire to begin work on draft bills to implement agreements with Panama and South Korea, after addressing outstanding concerns with each pact.

Republicans who control the House of Representatives, however, had been waiting for movement on the Colombian agreement before acting on the other two pact.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce hailed Wednesday's developments.

"A grand bargain on trade is taking shape. 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.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Additional reporting by Jack Kimball in Bogota, Editing by Paul Simao)