AP Sources: US, Colombia to announce trade deal

AP News
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Posted: Apr 05, 2011 8:57 PM
AP Sources: US, Colombia to announce trade deal

The U.S. and Colombia are expected to announce Wednesday a deal on a key free trade pact, three people close to the agreement said, ending a years-long stalemate over the highly-coveted pact.

An agreement appeared to come together following weeks of intense negotiations in Washington and Bogota, focused in part on Colombia strengthening its protection of unions and labor leaders.

U.S Trade Representative Ron Kirk recently told a House committee that the two sides had made "very strong progress" in addressing U.S. concerns over workers' rights in Colombia.

The deal would largely open up the Colombian markets for American goods without many of the duties that now exist. Officials have estimated the deal could increase U.S. exports to Colombia by $1 billion per year, creating jobs in the U.S. and business opportunities for American companies.

The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deal has not been formally announced.

The Colombia deal has become a political bargaining chip for Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have threatened to block the confirmation of a new commerce secretary and hold up final passage of another trade deal with South Korea if the administration did not also send lawmakers a final deal with Colombia, as well as another pending agreement with Panama.

Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, have personally appealed to President Barack Obama to finalize the Colombia and Panama deals, arguing that they would create jobs in the U.S. and help boost the economy. The administration contended there were still issues to resolve, including the labor issues with Colombia and tax concerns with Panama.

With the Colombia deal complete and U.S. officials claiming progress in talks with Panama, the administration is likely hoping they can push Republicans to drop their blockade of the South Korea agreement, America's largest trade pact in more than a decade. When the U.S. and South Korea completed the deal in December, the Obama administration said it would support tens of thousands of jobs and increase exports of U.S. goods by at least $10 billion.

The U.S. signed the South Korea, Colombia and Panama deals in 2007, under President George W. Bush, but the agreements don't go into effect until Congress approves them. Democrats who then controlled Congress never brought the agreements up for a vote, creating the space for the Obama administration to renegotiate areas of the deals it found objectionable.

Bush campaigned fervently for the Colombia deal, warning Congress that failure to approve a deal would cast the United States as untrustworthy and impotent across South America.

"If Congress were to reject the agreement with Colombia, we would validate antagonists in Latin America, who would say that America cannot be trusted to stand by its friends," Bush said in a 2008 speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

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.

Pressure to finalize the Colombia deal, however, has been mounting within Obama's own party. Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana and John Kerry of Massachusetts said in an editorial Monday that further delay would cause Colombia to send its business elsewhere.

"Each day we fail to act costs American jobs and sales," they wrote in The Wall Street Journal.