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The Obama administration is coming under increasing pressure from frustrated pro-trade lawmakers in the House and Senate to move ahead on three key trade deals.
United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk's testimony to the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday comes more than a week after the release of the administration's 2011 trade agenda, a plan that was met with a cool reception from trade proponents because of its vague language on the Colombia and Panama free-trade agreements.
Obama has called for a third trade agreement with South Korea to move forward, but has been non-committal on Colombia and Panama, citing concerns over issues such as tax transparency and labor conditions.
The Senate Finance Committee's March 9 hearing is a key component of Chairman Max Baucus' strategy to try to push the White House into setting definitive timelines for the Colombia and Panama trade agreements, according to sources close to Montana Democrat.
Baucus led a delegation of businessmen from his state to Colombia late last month to meet with local officials and discuss the progress they have made to address the administration's concern over the country's human rights record and labor conditions.
Free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama have languished since then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) shelved them during the waning months of the Bush administration.
Last month, Baucus and Finance ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) sent a letter to Kirk requesting that he testify in front of the committee on when the trade agreements with Colombia and Panama will move forward.
"We welcome your agreement to testify before the Senate Finance Committee on March 9, 2011," Baucus and Hatch wrote in a joint letter on Feb. 14. "At that time, we expect that you will come prepared to (1) identify specifically any additional steps that the Administration believes Panama or Colombia should take; and (2) provide a clear and expeditious timetable for moving both agreements through the U.S. Congress."
The letter pointed to Kirk's February testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee, during which Kirk said the president had directed him "to immediately intensify engagement with Colombia and Panama to resolve outstanding issues" so they can move forward.
A spokeswoman for Kirk also pointed to the February House hearing when asked whether the requested timeline would be provided to Baucus and Hatch.
"Ambassador Kirk is looking forward to testifying before the Senate Finance Committee and sharing as much detail as he can about our intensified engagement with Panama and Colombia and our efforts to resolve outstanding issues related to the agreements," wrote Carol Guthrie, the Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Public and Media Affairs. "As he said to the House Ways and Means Committee on February 9, we are working closely with Congress to determine appropriate next steps."