- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Bush administration is evaluating how to respond to Democrats’ concerns over labor issues in pending free-trade agreements with Peru, Colombia and Panama, an official in the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office said yesterday.

The administration wants the three agreements to be approved before the president’s trade promotion authority, which allows Congress to only vote on trade pacts without amendments, expires July 1.

Democrats have long pushed for tougher labor standards in free-trade agreements, saying that deals negotiated by the Bush administration do not include enough protections for workers in those countries or American workers.

According to the official in the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the administration is responding to concerns by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel of New York and other Democrats about pay and other labor conditions in the three countries.

The official stressed that the free-trade agreements themselves will not be renegotiated, but that the administration is trying to work out how to address those concerns outside of the formal pacts.

The agreements with Peru and Colombia have been signed, while the pact with Panama, reached in December, is being reviewed by attorneys from both countries to make sure the language is correct.

The official spoke after Deputy U.S. Trade Representative John Veroneau told reporters that the administration is “open to dialogue” with Congress on the issue.

“It is clear that some adjustments to that chapter will be made before Congress takes those up,” he said.

USTR spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel issued a clarification in the afternoon saying that in the case of signed agreements that have not been approved by Congress, such as the three pacts, “We believe these adjustments can be made through some binding instrument and it is not necessary to reopen the text of the agreement.”

Another official said: “How those adjustments will be made is not clear, but we will not be reopening the text of the agreements.”

AFL-CIO policy director Thea Lee said it seemed like the administration was trying to come up with “some kind of a cosmetic side letter that they can wave around” and gain Democratic votes.

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