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Boehner says Obama push needed to pass trade deals

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) listens to questions during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 14, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) listens to questions during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 14, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Doug Palmer and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives hopes to pass long-delayed free-trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama by August, House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday.

"We can move pretty quickly but it's going to take help by the president as well," Boehner told reporters.

Although Republicans, who now control the House, are generally pro-trade, some members of the party are skeptical of trade deals.

"I do believe a lot of work will have to be done with our own members," Boehner said.

In addition, a large portion of Democrats are likely to vote against the pacts, especially the Colombia agreement, which is generally seen as the most controversial of the three trade deals because of a long history of violence against union workers in the Andean country.

"The president is going to have to be out there as well talking about the importance of these three agreements. We hope to have them finished by the August recess," Boehner said.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told reporters separately he was optimistic Congress would pass the three trade deals with "good bipartisan support."

But talking to reporters after a speech, Kirk said it was "critical" lawmakers also renew an expanded Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program to help retrain workers who have the lost their jobs because of foreign competition.

"TAA is for us, again, part of the package," Kirk said.

Congress approved an expanded TAA program as part of the 2009 economic stimulus bill, but it expired early this year. Efforts to renew the program failed when some Republicans in the House of Representatives objected to its cost.

The beefed-up program has helped "a half a million workers and families in every state ... and it is critical that we have that program authorized at those levels," Kirk said.

After striking side deals to address outstanding concerns about each of the three trade pacts, the Obama administration now has "agreements that we think are going to garner good bipartisan support," Kirk said.

"We believe we can work with the leadership in the House and the Senate to get them passed," Kirk said.

The trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama were signed during the administration of President George W. Bush, but they stalled in the face of Democratic opposition.

Since December, the Obama administration has negotiated new auto provisions for the Korean agreement, a tax information exchange treaty with Panama and an action plan with Colombia to address longstanding US concerns about anti-union violence.

Administration officials said Wednesday they were prepared to begin technical discussions with Congress on implementing legislation for all three agreements, after Colombia met initial benchmarks in the labor action plan.

The officials said they expected further action from Colombia on the labor front before formally submitting the Colombia trade bill to Congress for a vote.

The next set of benchmarks that Colombia must meet under the action plan are in mid-June.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing next week on the Colombia agreement in anticipation it would soon be sent to Capitol Hill.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; editing by Deborah Charles)