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Senate Republicans link nominations to sending Korea, Colombia, Panama FTAs together

All Headlines 06:51 March 15, 2011

By Hwang Doo-hyong

WASHINGTON, March 14 (Yonhap) -- Republican senators Monday pressed President Obama to send Congress the pending free trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia at the same time, threatening to block his nominations for commerce secretary and other officials otherwise.

"I'm here today to announce that we have got 44 signatures on a letter to the president indicating that we don't intend to move forward on the nomination of a new secretary of commerce or any other trade-related position that requires confirmation of the Senate until all three trade agreements are sent to the Senate and the House for consideration," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told a news conference here, showing the letter to Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke was recently nominated as U.S. ambassador to China.

"We will use the tools at our disposal to force action, including withholding support for any nominee for commerce secretary and any trade-related nominees," the Republicans said in the letter. "Any further delay of these agreements is unnecessary and inexcusable."

Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections in November and significantly narrowed the margin in the Senate with 47 seats, breaking the Democrats' filibuster-proof super majority of 60 seats.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the ranking member of the committee, told a committee hearing last week that they will not approve the Korea FTA unless accompanied by two other similar deals with Panama and Colombia.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has also insisted that the Obama administration submit "your action plan" and "a timeframe" for the two other agreements, saying, "All three agreements should be considered by Congress by July 1."

Speaking at the Senate hearing last week, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, however, reiterated his intention to submit the Korea FTA first, although he said that he will try to resolve the remaining issues on the deals with Colombia and Panama "as quickly as possible this year" so the Obama administration could submit them to Congress immediately thereafter.

Kirk called on Congress to begin discussions with his office for the Korea FTA's ratification "without delay" as a prelude to presenting it to Congress.

The top U.S. trade official said on Feb. 9 that the Obama administration will present the Korea FTA to Congress within a month with the hope that Congress approves it "this spring" so as not to lag behind the European Union, which ratified a similar deal with Seoul set to take effect in July.

"We shouldn't wait on Panama and Colombia," Kirk said last week. "We think the wiser course of action, since Korea is ready, is for us to move forward. It's important that we not lose share in Korea. Korea is more economically compelling than the last nine free trade agreements the United States has done combined. We're talking $10 billion in exports in goods, as estimated by the ITT, over 70,000 jobs."

In December, Kirk met here with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-hoon, to produce a supplemental agreement addressing U.S. concerns over the lopsided auto trade, the biggest hurdle to getting congressional approval of the Korea FTA since it was signed in 2007 under the Bush administration.

The revised deal calls for a delayed phase out of auto tariffs, among other things, in return for Washington's concessions on pork and medicine.

The South Korean National Assembly is waiting for the U.S. Congress to approve the Korea FTA first to facilitate its ratification in South Korea, where the liberal major opposition party is set to oppose the pact.

The Korea FTA was negotiated under the Trade Promotion Authority Act of 2002, which requires Congress to vote yes or no without any amendments within 90 days of the deal's submission.

Obama expects the Korea FTA to further his ambitious goal of doubling exports within five years as a means of creating jobs as the world's biggest economy struggles to escape the recession that began in late 2008, the worst in decades.

In his State of the Union address last month, Obama called on Congress to ratify the Korea FTA "as soon as possible," saying it will "support at least 70,000 American jobs."

The U.S. International Trade Commission says the deal would increase annual two-way trade by more than $20 billion.

The U.S. goods trade deficit with South Korea was $10.6 billion in 2009, down $2.8 billion from 2008.


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