The Obama administration said Monday it's ready to send a highly coveted South Korea trade agreement to Congress for final approval but warned that delaying the deal would cause U.S. companies to miss out on jobs and export opportunities.
The administration's top trade negotiator, Ron Kirk, sent a letter to lawmakers saying he's prepared to hold discussions with them, the first step before Congress can formally approve the agreement. In the letter, obtained by The Associated Press, Kirk said he hopes talks can begin "without delay."
The move ratchets up the pressure on Republican lawmakers, many of whom support the South Korea deal but are threatening to block its approval unless the White House also sends them pending trade deals with Colombia and Panama.
In an interview with the AP, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said a signed agreement with South Korea would support 70,000 jobs in the U.S. and increase exports of U.S. goods by at least $10 billion. But Locke said American companies could lose out if South Korea finalizes deals with other trading partners first.
Of upmost concern to U.S. officials is an agreement between South Korea and the European Union that is speeding toward final approval and could be signed ahead of the U.S. deal.
"Those relationships will have already been formed between Korean companies, consumers and European products," Locke said. "They're not just going to abandon those relationships and start buying from America just because we passed our agreement."
Locke plans to lead a congressional delegation to South Korea in late April to highlight the opportunities for U.S. companies there. A senior administration official said late Monday that President Barack Obama intends to nominate Locke to become the U.S. ambassador to China.
Administration officials say that while they're making progress in accelerated negotiations with Colombia and Panama, outstanding issues remain, including Colombia's recognition of labor rights and protection of union leaders, and Panama's tax transparency rules. Officials say they hope to resolve those matters by the end of the year, and send final agreements to Congress shortly thereafter.
But Republicans argue that the deals are ready for final approval. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pled his party's case directly to Obama at a lunch earlier this year.
Locke said that while the administration is strongly committed to signing deals with Colombia and Panama, officials won't act prematurely.
"We've got to make sure these agreements are good for American companies," he said. "We don't want a deal just for the sake of a deal."
If Republicans were to block the South Korea deal, it would be a major blow to the White House, which won rare bipartisan praise, as well as the backing of both the business community and labor groups, when it signed the agreement in December.
The U.S. signed the agreement with Colombia in 2006 and the accords with Panama and South Korea in 2007. But they do not go into effect until they are approved by the House and the Senate.