The top Democrat on the House's key trade panel said Monday that Colombia must take more steps to improve the workplace environment for unions before he will support a stalled pact with the Latin American country.
Rep. Sander M. Levin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means committee, told reporters that Democrats want the Colombia agreement uncoupled from finished trade deals with Panama and South Korea.
Republicans want all three approved on a single vote.
"The failure to act by the Republicans is disgraceful," the Michigan congressman said. "My position is clear: Each ... should be handled on their own merits. They should not be used as a bargaining chip to pass other trade agreements."
"There is a way to do this without compromising," he said.
Trade experts fear the standoff, which has dragged on for months, could kill the Colombia pact. If Congress does not act in the next two weeks all three deals could be shelved for the summer adjournment, according to Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, an international business organization.
The trade deals are politically sensitive enough that the White House may not want to see them aired out once the 2012 presidential campaign heats up.
"The urgency here, of course, is that unless you get these agreements to Congress in a week or two, it's going to be tough to get a vote," Mr. Farnsworth said. "If you miss this window of opportunity, it becomes more likely that the agreements then don't come up until after the next election."
That would set the U.S. further back as competitors from around the world - like Canada, China and the European Union - step in and start their own trade agreements with Korea, Panama and Colombia.
"A lot of people are starting to say, 'Call us when you're serious. And in the meantime, we're going to talk to the Chinese,' " Mr. Farnsworth explained.
But Mr. Levin said Democrats shouldn't give in to the pressure to comply with the Colombia agreement before it is ready.
"There's too much emphasis on a timetable, and not enough on substance," he said. "I'm not in favor of delay. I'm in favor of intelligent action. And I think we need to get it right and get on with it."
The three deals were originally negotiated under President George W. Bush in 2006 and 2007, but Democrats waited years to renegotiate the terms before they were ready to accept the deals with Panama and South Korea. Now, they are nearing completion of the agreement with Colombia - but they are not there yet.
Mr. Levin noted that Colombia is making good progress. He recently got back from his third trip to that country, where he surveyed the workplace environments and talked with union leaders and representatives of Colombian and American companies.
Mr. Levin said there is "cause for optimism," thanks to the country's new leadership, and hinted that Colombia is headed in the right direction.
Specifically, he was impressed with Colombia for taking steps to improve protection of threatened workers and unionists, creating laws that impose criminal penalties for anti-union activity, and increase the number of investigators assigned to labor violence cases.
The problem is Republicans don't want to recognize an Action Plan on Labor Rights that details the steps Colombia needs to take to improve the workplace environment, he said, which is "totally unacceptable" and a major cause for delaying Democrat support.
"I think it's important that everybody understands that they're here to stay," he said. "Worker rights and labor rights are an important part of trade agreements going forward."
Mr. Levin began supporting the trade deal with South Korea several months ago, after the Obama administration renegotiated the terms, because it will help close the trade gap, particularly in the auto industry, between the U.S. and that country.
He has also shown support for the Panama agreement, since it made concessions on May 10 regarding worker rights and tax haven concerns.
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