US Administration to Push Trade Deals




WASHINGTON (AP) — Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said Thursday the Bush administration would use its last year in office to push for approval for three pending free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

He said the administration was optimistic that the deals can win approval despite the fact it is an election year and both the House and Senate are controlled by Democrats who have grown more skeptical of trade in light of soaring U.S. trade deficits and the loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs since 2000.


He pointed to strong support last fall for congressional passage of a free trade deal with Peru. However, the three pending agreements face much more opposition than that agreement did.


Gutierrez said the administration hopes Congress will take them up in the order that they were signed starting with Colombia and followed by Panama and South Korea.


Part of that strategy may reflect the view that the Colombia deal has the greatest chances for passage this year.

The administration plans what Gutierrrez called a "full court press" to win approval of the deal with Colombia over the next couple of months, including taking U.S. lawmakers to Colombia so that they can see first hand the progress that country has made in curbing violence and fighting drug trafficking.


Opponents of the deal with Colombia say the nation has not done enough to curb violence against union organizers, including a number of murders.

But Gutierrez said the government of President Alvaro Uribe has made great strides in combatting the murders, kidnappings and terrorism that have plagued the country as well as working with U.S. support to crack down on drug trafficking.

"Now is the time to move forward and help them make more progress instead of putting in jeopardy all of the progress that has been made," Gutierrrez said in a meeting with reporters.


Gutierrez said it would not only benefit the United States economically by removing tariffs on U.S. exports to that country but also politically by strengthening a strong U.S. ally and countering the influence of harsh U.S. critic Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela.


"We need to move as quickly as we can to help an ally," Gutierrez said.

But all three deals face an uncertain future in Congress this year, because of opposition by Democrats including some of the party's presidential candidates such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

Tom Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told reporters earlier in the week that business will work to get approval of the agreements, rejecting suggestions of any type of trade moratorium.


"We are the largest exporting nation in the world," Donahue said. "The suggestion that we back off trade agreements, trade expansion, is to suggest that we stop providing opportunities for American workers and American communities to participate in the global economy."


Gutierrez said the president has not given up hopes of completing global trade negotiations being conducted under the auspices of the World Trade Organization. However, the Doha Round of trade negotiations still remained at an impasse because of battles between wealthy countries and developing nations over such issues as farm subsidies.


In a separate interview, Christopher Padilla, Commerce's undersecretary for trade, said it was wrong to think the administration's trade agenda will be harmed by the fact that Bush has just one more year in office. He said former President Bill Clinton won approval for major legislation normalizing trade relations with China at the end of his administration while Bush's father succeeded in negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.


"There is a lot of precedent for getting things done in the last year of an administration," he said. "We certainly hope to repeat that."