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Dispute over Colombia pact threatens South Korea deal, Obama's trade agenda

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 10:31 PM

An emerging battle over a proposed free-trade agreement with Colombia is undercutting central pieces of President Obama's trade agenda, with key lawmakers urging swift enactment of a U.S.-Colombia deal even though the administration says the pact needs more work.

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The Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Finance Committee said Wednesday they would withhold approval of another trade agreement - a pact with South Korea that Obama recently completed - unless it is packaged with a Colombia deal and a third, less controversial one being negotiated with Panama.

"It is clear to me that none of these [agreements] are going to pass unless they are locked so closely together that they are all going to be acted on," said Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

The dispute over the Colombia pact is also entangling other trade measures and a package of benefits for workers displaced by trade.

The Colombia agreement presents the administration with an uncomfortable choice. Some of Obama's traditional labor supporters insist that Colombia's record on violence against trade unionists remains suspect, while other allies of the president say that he is missing a chance to create U.S. jobs and advance his goal of doubling U.S. exports.

"We are losing market share hand over fist" in Colombia, Baucus said.

Colombia has recently strengthened its trade ties with Argentina and Brazil and has agreements pending with Canada and the European Union.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), the ranking Republican on the committee, also said the South Korea deal could not progress without movement on Colombia.

Baucus and Hatch are from states where the agriculture industry looks to benefit from lower Colombian tariffs on U.S. farm imports.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, at a hearing held by Baucus's committee Wednesday, said the administration had stepped up talks with Colombia and Panama and is committed to concluding agreements with both, possibly by the end of the year.

But he said those discussions should be kept separate from the South Korea treaty. That pact represents potential billions in new U.S. exports and will be ready for ratification soon, Kirk said, while discussion about the other two still involve "core issues we will not compromise on" and need to continue.

A high-level Colombia delegation is scheduled to hold talks with administration officials Thursday. Colombian officials said they will push their U.S. counterparts to be clearer about what improvement in human rights and labor protection they expect.

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