The Bush administration accused senior Democratic lawmakers Monday of holding an ambitious U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement "hostage to election-year politics."

Undersecretary of Commerce Christopher Padilla strongly criticized Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's refusal to allow a vote on a painstakingly negotiated deal with a crucial Asian ally. The pro-U.S. government of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has faced tens of thousands of protesters since it agreed to a U.S. demand to resume importation of American beef that had been halted over fears of mad cow disease.

Lee's government's approval was meant to speed up U.S. ratification of the trade deal.

"And the Congress will not even give Korea the courtesy of a hearing on their free trade agreement? Not even a hearing? That's inexcusable, and it's no way to treat an ally," Padilla told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. When pressed later by reporters, he singled out Pelosi for blocking votes on the Korean and other trade deals.

Critics say the trade agreements championed by the Republican Bush administration hurt American workers; they urge the administration to deal with what they see as Americans' immediate economic needs before they take up trade deals with foreign countries. Congressional opposition to such deals has become more vocal as November elections draw closer.

Supporters say the deal would add more than $10 billion (euro6.4 billion) to the U.S. economy.

Padilla argued that failure to follow through with the trade agreement threatens U.S. standing in an important region. He noted that thousands of U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, and the United States and South Korea are two of five countries involved in negotiations to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs.

He also expressed frustration with Congress' inability to see the larger implications of ratifying a trade deal with South Korea and called the debate over the agreement "maddening." Passing the deal, he said, could spur trade talks with Thailand, Malaysia and other countries in Asia and further anchor the United States' economic position in the region.

As a final note of warning, Padilla said congressional hesitation on the deal comes as "China's economic footprint continues to grow, and its economic diplomacy grows more assertive."