The White House could send a free trade pact with Colombia to Congress for approval within weeks now that a bilateral agreement on labor concerns has been reached, a top U.S. official said on Monday.
However, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro said the exact timing would depend on talks with Congress on other trade priorities, which include securing assistance for vulnerable U.S. workers and smoothing trade with Russia.
“The Colombia agreement could be ready in a matter of weeks, but we will not leave the other important pieces of our trade agenda behind,” Sapiro said in a speech.
Talks with Congress could include potentially difficult negotiations over the future of retraining benefits for U.S. workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition.
Congress approved an expansion of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program in early 2009, but it recently expired after many House Republicans objected to its costs. With lawmakers battling over budgets, reviving the benefits could be tough.
“We’re having a conversation with congressional leadership over how to sequence all of our trade priorities because we don’t want to leave any single one behind,” Sapiro told reporters after the speech.
Many lawmakers in both parties also are wary of granting Russia what is known as “permanent normal trade relations” status until there is a final international agreement to let the country into the World Trade Organization.
That WTO deal could take months or longer. Normalising trade ties would ensure that Russian products receive the most favorable U.S. tariff rates and that Russia further opens its market to American exports when it joins the WTO.
The White House also wants to ensure the renewal of two other recently-expired programs, the Andean Trade Preferences Act and the Generalized System of Preferences that give poorer countries duty-free access to the United States.
While the Obama administration has supported trade as an engine of economic recovery, some Democratic lawmakers have resisted moves that could erode U.S. jobs by allowing in cheap imports, slowing down the process of agreeing to deals.
Republicans, who won control of the House of Representatives in last November’s election, have been pushing for action by July on the Colombia agreement as well as trade pacts with South Korea and Panama.
All three were signed during the administration of President George W. Bush, who was unable to win approval for the deals from the Democratic-controlled Congress.
Last week, the United States and Colombia announced a three-stage labor “action plan” to address concerns about workers rights, anti-union violence and criminal impunity in the Latin American country.
“Some of these actions will be taken before we move the FTA forward, in fact as soon as April 22, while others will be taken before Congress votes on the agreement or before entry into force,” Sapiro said.
The Colombian labor agreement followed a deal struck with South Korea in December to renegotiate provisions of the pact that U.S. automakers had complained favored their Asian competitors too much.
Sapiro said she expected more “good news” from Panama, where that country’s National Assembly is expected to soon approve a tax information treaty that would clear the way for the White House to send that deal to Congress.