By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican senators on Monday threatened to hold up votes on all trade nominations, including the soon-to-be-vacant spot of Commerce secretary, until President Barack Obama sends long-delayed trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea to Congress for votes.
"Our message is clear: Unless the president acts on these agreements, we will withhold support for any nominee for commerce secretary or any other trade-related nominees," said Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade.
The same threat was conveyed in a letter to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid signed by 44 of the Senate's 47 Republicans. That was the idea of Senator Rob Portman, who launched negotiations on the Korea agreement in 2006 when he was former President George W. Bush's trade representative.
All three pacts were negotiated and signed when was Bush in the White House, but have been stalled because of labor and, in the case of Panama, bank secrecy concerns raised by Democrats and their union allies. Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from January 2007 through December 2010.
Obama "says he wants to get them done, but we've heard that over and over. After two years in office, we still don't know whether the president will ever submit the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements to Congress for a vote," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
The Obama administration has negotiated changes to the South Korea deal to address U.S. auto industry complaints that it failed to tear down barriers that keep American cars out of that market, and already plans to send it Congress for a vote.
OPPOSITION FROM LABOR
But faced with stiff opposition to the Colombia agreement from the 12.2-million AFL-CIO labor federation, the White House has been slow to resolve concerns about that pact -- mainly labor's complaint that the Colombia government has not done enough to stop killings of trade unionists and prosecute those responsible for the crimes.
Last week, the U.S. Trade Representative's office held talks with high-level Colombian officials on those issues and the two sides plan to meet again within two weeks in a sign of possible progress.
The Obama administration is also pressing Panama to make changes to its labor and tax haven laws before sending the least controversial of the three pacts to Congress.
"The president's goal is the passage of all three agreements with issues resolved, just as they were resolved with Korea in a way that showed the American people that a robust and forward-moving trade policy can be responsive to their concerns," said Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.
Republicans accused the White House of dragging its feet on agreements that already have enough bipartisan support in Congress to pass.
However, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat who supports the agreements, called the Republican threat to delay trade nominees a "diversion" that would not help ensure the pacts' passage.
Reid, during a conference call with reporters on jobs legislation, also criticized the Republican threat.
He said Democrats were willing to consider trade pacts that are "fair to the American working family."
"But to say they are going to hold up government basically until these trade agreements come up seems very short-sighted to me," Reid said.
Obama has nominated current U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to be the next ambassador to China. He has not yet nominated a replacement for Locke.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Tom Ferraro; editing by Todd Eastham)