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Commerce secretary says U.S. Congress should move to pass 4 pending free trade deals

Commerce secretary says U.S. Congress should move to pass 4 pending free trade deals

The Bush administration said Monday Congress should not punish Colombia by refusing to act on a pending free trade agreement with the Latin American country.
"Colombia deserves a vote," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in an interview with reporters. "We don't believe a strategy to run out the clock is the right thing to do with allies."
Gutierrez said the administration was working to get votes on all four pending free trade agreements covering three countries in Latin America _ Peru, Panama and Colombia _ and also with South Korea.
Prospects for all four deals brightened in May when the administration and Democrats in Congress reached agreement to include provisions in the measures to strengthen the protection of labor rights and the environment in answer to complaints that American workers were being subjected to unfair competition from low-wage countries.
But since that agreement, none of the free trade deals has passed Congress. An agreement with Peru is expected to win approval in coming weeks, but the deals with Panama, Colombia and South Korea are facing greater opposition.
The measure with Colombia is in peril because of Democratic complaints that Colombia's government is not doing enough to prevent the killing of labor leaders trying to organize unions and to punish officials linked to right-wing paramilitary organizations.
To overcome those objections, Gutierrez has led two recent congressional fact-finding missions to Colombia and is arguing that it would represent a setback to a key U.S. ally in the region if the free trade deal is rejected.
Gutierrez cited a study that estimated that investment that would have gone to Colombia would go to other countries in the region who have free trade deals, slowing growth and costing Colombia 400,000 jobs.
Gutierrez, who is scheduled to lead a trade mission with 23 U.S. companies to Vietnam on Nov. 4-8, said he hoped that trip would help highlight the importance of passing a free trade deal with South Korea. That agreement has been held up because of lawmakers' concerns about Korea's barriers to U.S. autos and beef.
The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to take up legislation on Wednesday to overhaul what Democrats see as an outdated aid program to help workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel said the Trade Adjustment Act, set up in 1962, "has not kept pace with globalization." He wants to expand the program to cover industries outside of manufacturing and also to ease eligibility requirements to allow workers in entire industies to be certified for assistance rather than making the approvals on a company-by-company basis.
Gutierrez said the administration supports the goals of the trade adjustment program and was in conversations with Democrats over what type of expansion would be acceptable.