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Posted at 12:57 PM ET, 03/ 9/2011

Lawmakers threaten to hold up Korea trade deal

By Felicia Sonmez

Members of the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday told U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk that they would hold up a U.S.-Korea trade agreement until the Obama administration progresses on two other long-stalled trade deals with Panama and Colombia.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican on the committee, said in his opening testimony that he appreciated the work the administration has done on Korea but sought to link congressional approval of that agreement with approval of the two other deals.

"I don't believe the president will ever act on the Colombia and Panama agreements unless these agreements move with Korea," Hatch said. He threatened that if Obama "ignores the will of Congress and sends the Korea agreement without Colombia and Panama, I will do everything I can to make sure that those two agreements are considered at the same time as Korea."

"If we are to serve the national interest and get these two agreements approved, Congress must act with -- or without -- presidential leadership," Hatch said.

Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, also said that he was on board with holding up the Korea deal until it could be packaged with the other two agreements.

Kirk told the committee Wednesday that, as expected, the administration has completed its work on the Korea agreement and that President Obama would like the deal to be voted on by Congress this spring.

Kirk also said that he was committed to working with lawmakers to address the concerns regarding the two deals before the year is out.

Lawmakers of both parties have been pushing for progress on the Panama and Colombia deals, which have been held up due to labor and Democratic concerns over Panama's labor and tax-haven laws and continued anti-union violence in Colombia.

Baucus recently returned from a trip to Bogota during which he met with Colombia business leaders and officials and emphasized that he would work to ensure a pact is approved this year.

At one point during Wednesday's hearing, Kirk and Hatch had an extended exchange on why there has been such a delay on the Colombia and Panama deals. Kirk defended the administration's progress, noting that "we're still at the negotiating table."

"There are issues that are important to this administration that we've articulated," Kirk said. "We think there are issues that are shared with the Columbians and we think we have an opportunity in these next several weeks to get that resolved."

Hatch responded, "I don't know why Canada can do these things and we can't," to which Kirk replied, "We're the United States. ... I've got a flag on my lapel and not a maple leaf."

Hatch, appearing exasperated, acknowledged that "I don't want to move in an undue fashion either, but my God, I'm sick of it."

Kirk asked the lawmakers for patience. "I am more optimistic than not that we're going to be in a good place soon," he said. "I just ask for a little bit of forbearance."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, renewed his criticism of the administration on trade in a Senate floor speech Wednesday, saying that he supports the progress that's been made on the South Korea deal but charged that the White House has "failed to follow through" on the other two deals.

"At a time when nearly 14 million Americans are looking for work, the President should be listening to those of us who come to him with ways to create jobs, and this is one of them," McConnell said. "The administration has no excuse for failing to act on these trade agreements. It's in the clear interest of the country to approve them."

By Felicia Sonmez  | March 9, 2011; 12:57 PM ET
 
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