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The Associated Press May 4, 2011, 11:47AM ET

White House ready to send Congress key trade deals

The White House said Wednesday it is ready to send Congress three coveted free-trade agreements, meeting the demands of Republican lawmakers and cementing trade as an integral part of President Barack Obama's economic agenda.

The administration could start technical discussions with congressional staff on the deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama as early as Thursday. The technical discussions are the first step in the process Congress must undertake before approving the pacts.

The White House finalized the highly coveted pact with South Korea -- the largest of the three deals -- in December, and had hoped Congress would approve it quickly. But Republican lawmakers had threatened to block the South Korea deal unless the administration also finalized pacts with Colombia and Panama.

After months of intense negotiations on two continents, the administration finalized agreements with the Latin American countries last month.

Among the hang-ups that had kept the administration from agreeing to a deal with Colombia were concerns over the treatment of organized labor there. The Colombians agreed to take a series of steps to improve the protection of unions and labor leaders, with the first of those steps implemented April 22.

In a letter to lawmakers, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said that while Colombia has more work to do, the initial phases of agreements on labor are being effectively implemented. Therefore, Kirk said, the administration feels confident in starting technical talks with Congress on the deal.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., hailed the administration's progress on the Colombia deal as a win for both countries.

"The Labor Action Plan will strengthen the rights and protections of Colombian workers and help ensure a level playing field for U.S. workers," he said in a statement.

John Murphy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a vocal supporter of free trade, said the administration's decision to send all three deals to Congress is a breakthrough on trade that has been a long time coming.

"We have a chance in the weeks ahead to create American jobs, reaffirm vital alliances, and show that the United States can still lead," said Murphy, the Chamber's vice president of international policy.

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