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Panama deal opens way for other trade agreements

Associated Press

Panama deal opens way for other trade agreements

19 April 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Administration officials said Tuesday that a free trade agreement with Panama is ready for congressional consideration and that they hoped it will be part of a larger trade agenda that also includes completion of long-pending free trade treaties with South Korea and Colombia.

The administration has already said it wants to begin working with Congress to ratify the South Korean pact, and progress on Panama removes another sticking point in what has been an ongoing feud with congressional Republicans on trade policy.

Republicans have said that all three deals, which were signed by the George W. Bush administration, must be sent to Congress before they will act on any one of them.

Colombia has been the most difficult of the three because of its history of suppressing labor rights, but earlier this month the U.S. and Colombian governments agreed on an action plan related to labor rights.

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Mariam Sapiro, in a telephone interview with reporters, said the Obama administration will be monitoring Colombia’s adherence to that action plan in the coming weeks. While not committing to any time frame, she said the Colombia agreement "could be ready for the next step soon."

Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee that oversees trade issues, urged the administration to begin negotiations with Congress on all three pending agreements "so that Congress can consider all of them by July 1."

As a first step, the White House and Congress must work out language on implementing the treaties. Once that is accomplished, President Barack Obama will submit the agreements to Congress for ratification.

The last hurdle on the Panama accord was removed this week when the Panamanian government signed off on an agreement on tax transparency that would deter would-be tax evaders from using Panamanian banks as tax havens. Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli is to meet Obama in Washington next week to discuss the trade issue.

While Panama is not a major trade partner, exporting only $300 million to the United States in 2009 while importing $4.4 billion in U.S. goods, Sapiro said the free trade agreement would make 87 percent of U.S. consumer and industrial products and 56 percent of U.S. agricultural products duty-free immediately. She said it would also make it easier for U.S. companies to participate in more than $5 billion in investment as Panama expands the Panama Canal.

There’s even more at stake with the other two: the administration says the trade agreement with Colombia will expand U.S. exports by more than $1 billion and, with lowered duties, increase the U.S. gross domestic product by $2.5 billion.

In the case of Korea, the administration says the deal will support 70,000 jobs in the United States and that tariff cuts alone will add at least $10 billion to the GDP.

The administration has won some Democratic and labor support for the Korea pact but still faces vocal opposition over Colombia because of its labor rights record.

Michael Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economics, who joined Sapiro in the phone interview, said the administration wants to work with Congress on a larger trade agenda that includes completion of the three pending free trade deals, removal of restrictions blocking permanent normal trade relations with Russia and renewal of now-expired provisions of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act, which helps American workers displaced by international trade retrain for new jobs.