Obama announces plan to advance U.S.-Colombia trade deal

McClatchy NewspapersApril 6, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The White House said Wednesday that it had struck a deal to advance a long-stalled free-trade agreement with Colombia, but it was uncertain whether it will past muster with critics of the country's labor record.

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, called for swift passage, saying trade with the country would boost the U.S. economy.

President Barack Obama will meet Thursday at the White House with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to talk about a labor rights "action plan" aimed at addressing congressional concerns over the deal.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the plan — hammered out over the past three weeks _included a number of steps that the Colombian government had agreed to take, including expanding protection for labor leaders and union organizers and bolstering efforts to strengthen labor laws and enforcement. Those have been sticking points for Democrats, who want greater union protection in the agreement, which was reached in 2007 but requires a vote of Congress to ratify.

"The president made it clear that as much as we believed in the economic imperative and opportunity, we thought it was also important that we demonstrate to the American public our resolve to have free trade agreements that reflect our values as it relates to how workers should be treated," Kirk said.

It was unclear Wednesday whether the changes would mollify Democratic critics. New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, the top Democrat on the powerful House Rules Committee, vowed to block the measure, saying it "turns a blind eye to rampant human rights violations and anti-labor practices of Colombia, where merely joining a union or advocating for workers rights can be a death sentence."

Business groups and congressional Republicans — who'd threatened to block a pending $10 billion trade deal with South Korea if the administration didn't move on Colombia — applauded the move.

"While today's news is welcome, it is long overdue," said Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. "In fact, it is several years overdue, and our competitors in China and elsewhere have seized on our missed trade opportunities."

Republicans credited their opposition with prodding the White House to act.

"We are ecstatic," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who called it "about time" for the administration to get the deal rolling. "This is jobs, jobs, jobs. We have small businesses ready to go, to hire people, to get this started."

Kirk said on a conference call that it was Obama's direction that got the deal moving.

"We do respect their voices," Kirk said of Congress. "But we are where we are because of this president's courage and resolve."

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