Boehner wants FTAs with Korea, Colombia, Panama ratified before August

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday he wants to have the pending free-trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama pass through Congress before August.

Speaking to a news conference, Boehner (R-OH) said, "We hope to have them finished before the August recess."

The top Republican lawmaker's remarks came one day after the Obama administration announced its readiness to begin technical consultations with Congressional staff on the three trade deals this week ahead of their presentation to Congress.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has said he wants Congress to approve the Korea deal "this spring" so as not to lag behind the European Union, which has ratified a similar deal with Seoul that is set to take effect July 1.

The South Korean National Assembly approved the deal with the EU Wednesday.

Kirk and other Obama administration officials have said they will submit the Korea FTA first despite calls by some Republicans that similar deals with Colombia and Panama should be deliberated together with the Korea deal.

A senior Obama administration official said Wednesday that the administration has not yet determined the schedule for the presentation of the Korea and two other deals, adding "the sequencing, timing and packaging" will depend on discussions with Congress.

Boehner called for U.S. President Barack Obama's help in pushing for the deals.

"We can move pretty quickly but it's going to take help by the president as well," he said.

"The president is going to have to be out there as well talking about the importance of these free-trade deals."

The Korea FTA, along with the Colombia and Panama deals, was negotiated under the Trade Promotion Authority Act of 2002, which requires Congress to vote yes or no without amendments within 90 days of the deal's submission.

Boehner said the free-trade deals will help create jobs and boost economy.

"Now, helping Americans get back to work is our top priority, and these agreements will help create jobs and boost our economy," he said.

"We're serious about enacting the three free-trade agreements.

And I do believe that a lot of work will have to be done with our own members."

Obama has said the Korea FTA, the biggest trade deal for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, will support more than 70,000 jobs and help double U.S. exports within five years as the world's biggest economy struggles to escape the recession that began in late 2008.

The International Trade Commission has estimated that the Korea FTA would annually add $10 billion to $11 billion to the U.S. GDP and roughly $10 billion in U.S. exports to Korea.

Kirk wednesday sent a letter to members of the Senate finance and house ways and Means committees, which have jurisdiction over the free-trade deals, saying that the Colombia deal is also ready for discussions with Congressional staff.

Washington reached a new deal with Colombia last month on labor rights, which have served as a stumbling block to congressional approval of the trade agreement since its signing in 2007.

An agreement with Panama took effect last month, allowing exchanges of tax information to prevent tax evasion in the Latin American state, which is often criticized for serving as a tax haven.

Seoul and Washington produced a supplemental agreement in December to address U.S. concerns over lopsided auto trade, the biggest hurdle to congressional approval of the Korea FTA, by introducing a delayed phase-out of auto tariffs in return for Washington's concessions on pork and medicine.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, dropped his opposition to the Korea FTA Wednesday after Kirk sent a letter to him with a pledge that he will call on South Korea to allow wider access to its beef market once the Korea FTA takes effect.

Baucus had threatened not to endorse the Korea FTA without further progress on the beef issue.

South Korea and the U.S. signed a protocol in 2008 to ban shipments of beef from cattle over 30 months old until consumer confidence is restored in South Korea, where fears of mad cow disease prompted weeks of street rallies against U.S. beef.

The U.S. beef industry supports the Korea FTA. U.S. beef shipments to South Korea more than doubled to US$518 million last year from $216 million a year earlier.

South Korea was the second biggest U.S. beef market, worth $815 million, in 2003 when Seoul banned imports after a few cases of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, surfaced in the U.S.

Berny Polanía

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