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Korea, Colombia, Panama Free Trade Deals Advance

The White House said Wednesday it was ready to send U.S. trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea to Congress for approval, meeting Republican demands on an integral part of President Obama's economic agenda.

The first step in the process, technical discussions with congressional aides, could begin as early as Thursday.

The White House finalized the South Korean pact, the largest of the three, in December and had hoped for quick approval. But Republicans threatened to block the deal unless the Obama administration also finalized agreements with Colombia and Panama. That breakthrough came in April, after months of negotiations.

Addressing U.S. concerns about the treatment of organized labor in Colombia, the Colombian government agreed to a series of moves to improve the protection of unions and labor leaders.

In a letter to lawmakers, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Colombia had more work to do, but that the country was effectively putting in place the initial phases of the agreements on labor. Therefore, Kirk said, the administration felt confident in starting technical talks with Congress.

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 was 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.

The administration also said it would act to address concerns over U.S. access to the beef market in South Korea, an important issues for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and other lawmakers. The Agriculture Department would spend more to promote U.S. beef sales in Korea and Kirk would request additional consultations with the Koreans on opening up the Korean market once the free trade agreement is fully in place.

Baucus has demanded that South Korea allow the U.S. to export beef from older cows. The Koreans are reluctant, partly due to lingering concerns over outbreaks of mad cow disease several years ago.

"Korea's age restriction on U.S. beef is both scientifically unjustified and inconsistent with international standards," Baucus said in a statement, while praising the administration's announcements.

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