“When I go back and report to Colombia, I’ll probably tell them … the mood seemed optimistic,” even though no firms dates were offered for a vote or even a congressional hearing on the trade pact, Colombia Trade Minister Luis Guillermo Plata said.”I think the agreement could have been killed, you know, a month, two months ago and it wasn’t. I think we’re still optimistic … this is alive and very much alive and it could become a reality hopefully in the near future,” Plata said.He spoke with reporters after two days of meetings with senior Bush administration officials and Republican and Democratic staff members of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, which have jurisdiction over trade agreements.Separately, a Colombian newspaper reported on Tuesday that Republican presidential candidate John McCain was planning a trip to Colombia in early July.A spokesman for McCain declined to comment and a spokeswoman for the Colombian embassy said she could not confirm the report.McCain favors approval of the free trade agreement, which would lock in Colombia’s current duty-free access to the U.S. market while eliminating barriers to U.S. exports and making other business-friendly reforms.Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has argued, like many other Democrats, that Colombia needs to reduce violence and murders of union members before Congress votes on the free trade pact.Plata conceded Colombia has more work to do to stop killings and put murderers in jails. But union member homicides have already declined to 26 in 2007, from 196 in 2002 while the successful prosecution of those cases have risen, he said.”How good is good enough?” Plata said, expressing doubt that an even lower number of union member homicides in 2007 would have persuaded critics to support the pact.In April, Bush ignored Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s advice and submitted the Colombia agreement to Congress under longstanding “fast track” procedures requiring it to be approved or rejected within 90 days.Pelosi responded by pushing through a rule change that allowed her to indefinitely delay action on the pact.Since then, the Bush administration has accused Pelosi of effectively killing an agreement with one of the United States’ staunchest allies in Latin America unless she schedules a straight up-or-down vote on the pact.Pelosi has not completely ruled out a vote this year but has said that would only be possible after Congress takes action to help U.S. workers struggling with the impact of the housing crisis and high oil and food prices.Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco told reporters she was optimistic negotiations between the White House and Congress on domestic economic concerns could produce the “appropriate” environment for a House vote on the trade pact.Colombia concluded a free trade deal with Canada over the weekend and – with Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador – is negotiating another free trade agreement with the European Union.In addition to probing Colombia’s progress on reducing violence, congressional aides asked detailed question about market access provisions of the Canadian agreement that could disadvantage U.S. exports, Plata said.
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