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Published April 06, 2011, 03:34 PM

US, Colombia reach deal on key free trade pact

WASHINGTON — After weeks of intense negotiations, the United States and Colombia have reached a deal on a free trade pact that the White House says is a vital part of President Barack Obama's economic agenda.

By: Julie Pace, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — After weeks of intense negotiations, the United States and Colombia have reached a deal on a free trade pact that the White House says is a vital part of President Barack Obama's economic agenda.

The administration said the agreement came together after the Colombians agreed to offer greater protections for workers and union leaders, an area of key concern for the U.S. The final pact will boost U.S. exports to Colombia by more than $1 billion per year and could support thousands of American jobs.

The deal has bipartisan support in Congress, which must approve the agreement before it can be implemented. Republican lawmakers have used the pact as a political bargaining chip, threatening to block the confirmation of a new commerce secretary and hold up final passage of another deal with South Korea if the administration did not finalize a deal with Colombia, as well as another pending agreement with Panama.

Completing the Colombia deal could increase pressure on the Panamanian government to address outstanding issues that remain in those negotiations, administration officials said. U.S. concerns with Panama are focused on the transparency of tax laws there, though officials say Panama will likely pass a tax-information exchange agreement that could end the stalemate by the end of this month.

Under the agreement with Colombia, 80 percent of U.S. exports of consumer and industrial products to Colombia will become duty-free, with the remaining tariffs phased out over the next 10 years. More than half of U.S. agriculture exports to Colombia would also become duty-free, with almost all tariffs eliminated within 15 years.

With Colombia, the third largest economy in Central and South America, set to implement trade pacts with Canada and the European Union, the administration said finalizing the deal now was crucial to the U.S. keeping an economic foothold in the country.

The White House said Obama would meet at the White House Thursday with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to formally approve the agreement.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, welcomed the breakthrough with the Colombians, but said the deal did nothing to change his party's insistence that the administration finalize all three outstanding trade agreements before Congress approves any of the pacts.

“All three agreements need to be sent up together,” Hatch said. “We need to begin implementing work on all three agreements immediately.”

Republicans have said they want to begin reviewing the three trade pacts by July 1. The administration has yet to send the South Korea deal to Congress, and administration officials offered no timeline Wednesday for sending the Colombia agreement.

The U.S. signed the three pacts in 2007 under President George W. Bush. But the then-Democratic-led Congress never brought the agreements up for vote, giving the Obama administration time to renegotiate areas it found objectionable.

The key U.S. concerns in negotiating the Colombia pact focused on high rates of violence against Colombian labor union leaders and insufficient protections for workers’ rights. Under the new agreement, the Colombian government will phase in an action plan throughout the year aimed at increasing protections for labor, including expanding the scope of existing protections to help union leaders protect labor activists and enacting tougher measures to criminalize actions that limit workers’ rights, including the right to organize.

Many U.S. labor organizations have opposed the deal on the basis of Colombia's treatment of unions. Daniel Kovalik, a senior lawyer for the United Steelworkers, called news of the amended Colombia pact “devastating” and said his union, as well as the AFL-CIO, would continue to oppose the deal.

“This shows a total disregard for the views of labor on this, a sacrosanct issue for labor,” Kovalik said Wednesday.

Colombia continues to be an extremely dangerous country for union organizers. According to the National Labor School, 52 union activists were murdered last year, and five have been killed so far this year.

News of the deal with Colombia won praise from the business community.

Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, applauded Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for their “courage and pragmatism” in striking the accord.

“This proves the United States can still lead on trade,” Donohue said. “The Chamber will work closely with the White House and Congress to secure approval of the three pending free trade agreements in the weeks ahead.”

Obama has made trade a central part of his economic agenda, in part because he sees it as a way to boost U.S. exports and jobs, and because it's an area where the administration believes it can get Republican support. Republicans have generally supported trade agreements.

The president has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2015, in part by entering into new trade agreements.

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Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru and Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia contributed to this report.

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