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Published April 25, 2011, 06:29 AM

Trade agreement moves forward

WASHINGTON — In a move that may make it possible for Congress to consider all three pending free trade agreements soon, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced April 18 that Panama has satisfied U.S. concerns for completion of a free trade pact and that the Obama administration is preparing to send the Panama agreement to Capitol Hill for ratification.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — In a move that may make it possible for Congress to consider all three pending free trade agreements soon, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced April 18 that Panama has satisfied U.S. concerns for completion of a free trade pact and that the Obama administration is preparing to send the Panama agreement to Capitol Hill for ratification.

In a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, Kirk wrote that since Feb. 9, when he testified before House Ways and Means, he has met with Panamanian Vice President Juan Carlos Varela and that U.S. and Panamanian officials “agreed upon actions that, when completed, would ready the agreement for congressional consideration” and that “Panama now has fulfilled its commitments regarding those actions.”

“I am pleased to report to you that the Office of the United States Trade Representative has completed its preparatory work on the agreement and stands ready to begin technical discussions with members of Congress on the draft implementing bill and draft statement of administrative action,” Kirk writes in the letter. “We hope our discussions to review these documents can commence without delay so that we can work together to bring the benefits of this agreement home to American businesses, farmers and workers.”

Kirk did not mention the specific issue that had held up the agreement, but House Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said in a news release that the letter had followed Panama’s full ratification of the Tax Information Exchange Agreement.

Outstanding agreements

Brady and Camp said that the agreement with Panama should “pave the way” for Congress to consider it and the other two pending agreements — South Korea and Colombia — by July 1, but Kirk did not mention any schedule in his news release.

The Obama administration has said it would send the South Korea-U.S. agreement soon, but Republicans have said they want to consider all three agreements at the same time.

Kirk said in an April 13 speech that while the administration wants the agreements approved, it also is considering the timing “in the context of a larger discussion about sequencing a comprehensive trade agenda this year.”

“Specifically, the administration is seeking to renew trade adjustment assistance,” Kirk said, “as well as the (Andean Trade Preference Act) and the (General System of Preferences) trade preference programs, and secure [permanent normal trade relations] for Russia as it accedes to the (World Trade Organization) including by working with Congress to terminate application of Jackson-Vanik.”

Panama is by far the smallest of the three economies with pending trade agreements, but Camp and Brady noted that Panama has concluded trade agreements with Chile, Singapore and Taiwan, whose exporters either now or soon will have a competitive advantage over U.S. firms because U.S. products will be subject to higher duties unless the agreement is ratified.

April 19, a senior White House official announced that the administration has begun discussions with congressional leaders on how to gain approval of the three pending free trade agreements — Korea, Colombia and Panama — as well as achieve the administration’s other trade goals.

Adjustment assistance

Michael Froman, the deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, said the administration wants to renew the 2009 version of trade adjustment assistance, which is viewed as “an important expansion of the program that is still very much needed to address workers that have been put out of work because of changes in the economy.”

President Obama will meet with President Ricardo Martinelli of Panama April 28, the officials said.

The American Soybean Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council all praised the movement forward on the Panama agreement.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative released fact sheets on the Panama agreement that included details of U.S. agricultural sales to Panama and their potential.

Although Panama only has about 3.2 million people, the United States exported more than $450 million of agricultural products to that nation in 2010, more than double the amount exported there in 2005, USTR said. Top U.S. exports were corn, soybean cake and meal, wheat, rice and horticultural products.

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