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Bush notifies Congress of plans to sign Panama free trade deal

International Herald Tribune

Bush notifies Congress of plans to sign Panama free trade deal

The Associated Press

30 March 2007

WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush notified Congress on Friday that he plans to sign a free trade agreement with Panama.

The deal, along with similar agreements with Peru and Colombia, faces an uncertain future in Congress, where Democrats are demanding additional language in such areas as protecting American workers from unfair competition from countries with lax labor laws.

Rep. Charles Rangel, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives, has been leading discussions with administration officials over proposals the Democrats want to see before they will support future free trade deals.

The administration signaled a new willingness to consider the demands after Democrats won control of the House and Senate in November’s congressional elections.

The original goal had been to wrap up the talks with the president this week to meet a 90-day deadline for notifying Congress about any pending trade deals before the July 1 deadline when Bush’s current authority to negotiate trade agreements expires.

However, Rangel and Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana, the top Republican on Ways and Means, said in a joint statement Thursday that talks with the administration will extend past this week.

"We will continue to pursue agreement on these issues in the coming days because re-establishing a bipartisan foundation on trade policy is more critical than meeting a procedural deadline," the two men said in their statement.

Bush had already notified Congress of his intent to sign free trade deals with Peru and Colombia.

The president has asked Congress to extend his negotiating authority, which lets him negotiate trade deals that Congress must approve on an up-or-down vote without amendments, but the prospects for that occurring hinge on a successful conclusion of the talks with Democrats.

A U.S. negotiating team has been in South Korea since Monday trying to wrap up a free trade agreement with that country before the deadline for the pact to be considered under Bush’s current fast-track authority. Negotiations were to have been completed by Friday, but the office of the U.S. Trade Representative said late Friday Washington time that talks were extended into the weekend.

The South Korea agreement would be the last that could be approved under the current fast-track authority. The administration last week said it was abandoning hopes for completing talks in time for a free trade deal with Malaysia. That agreement, when it is completed, will have to be covered by new fast-track legislation.

On Friday, White House officials expressed pessimism about the prospect for the Korean talks.

"Unless the negotiations show some sign of significant progress in the next few hours, this agreement will most likely not come together," White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said.

Later Friday, Sean Spicer, chief spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, said that the Korea talks were continuing "on a number of outstanding issues." He said the discussions would have to be wrapped up by 5 p.m. Sunday GMT for the administration to notify Congress in time for the deal to be covered by the current fast-track authority.

In a joint statement, Rangel and Democratic Rep. Sander Levin said Democrats expect to use the 90-day notification period for discussions with the administration over "incorporating necessary changes on outstanding issues such as labor, environment and intellectual property that must be addressed before the bills will receive broad bipartisan support in Congress."