The Obama administration is under increasing pressure to quickly approve trade deals with Colombia and Panama as it tries to resolve partisan wrangling that threatens to derail a pivotal trade agreement with South Korea.
White House officials have said expanding trade agreements will be a top administration priority in 2011 as President Obama's re-election prospects are likely to hinge in part on his ability to bring down the nation's unemployment rate.
The administration released its annual policy report this week that shows trading with overseas partners would directly support 6,000 jobs in the United States for every $1 billion in goods exported and another 4,500 jobs for every $1 billion in service exports.
The White House had hoped to gain bipartisan support for that effort. Republican lawmakers traditionally have backed free trade agreements, and Obama won rare Republican praise after signing the highly coveted agreement with South Korea in December. The White House said that agreement would create tens of thousands of jobs.
But the White House and congressional Republicans are at odds now, however, over how to proceed with the South Korea deal, as well as pending agreements with Colombia and Panama.
The United States signed the agreement with Colombia in 2006 and the accords with Panama and South Korea in 2007. But they do not go into effect until they are approved by the House and the Senate.
The administration wants Congress to give final approval to the South Korea pact quickly, while it simultaneously works through outstanding issues with Panama and Colombia. Obama makes his first visit to Central and South America later this month, with stops in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, but not in Panama or Colombia.
Some Republicans argue that the smaller trade deals with Colombia and Panama are ready for congressional approval now, and want the White House to send all three to the Congress at the same time.
House Speaker John Boehner made that case directly to the president during a White House lunch last month. And more than 60 freshman House Republicans sent Obama a letter Tuesday saying they are ready to work with the president to pass all three agreements within the next six months.
"Our economy and our job market cannot afford anything less than swift action and decisive action," they said in the letter.
A bipartisan group of six former U.S. trade representatives, 11 former assistant secretaries of state also called for action on the trade deals in a letter sent Wednesday to Obama and congressional leaders.
"We are united in our belief that prompt ratification of the pending Free Trade Agreements with Colombia and Panama is in the national interest of the United States," they wrote.
Even some in the president's own party are growing impatient. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus criticized the administration Tuesday for offering no timeline or specific steps to complete the Panama and Colombia deals in the trade report.
Baucus traveled to Bogota last month to discuss trade matters with Colombian government and labor officials. While he said there is still some work to be done in completing an agreement, he said it is time to resolve quickly outstanding issues so the three deals can be approved this year.
Thus far, the administration is showing little willingness to compromise on its position. In the report released Tuesday, the administration reiterated its desire for lawmakers to approve the South Korea deal "as soon as possible" while working to resolve outstanding issues with Colombia and Panama by the end of the year, including Colombia's recognition of labor rights and protection of union leaders and Panama's tax transparency rules.
While administration officials will not discuss specific timelines for resolving those and other issues, they do say progress is being made in their negotiations. Panamanian officials have met with U.S. counterparts in Washington in recent weeks, including a White House meeting with Panama's vice president. U.S. officials also have held meetings on labor issues with Colombian officials.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk is scheduled to testify on all three agreements before the Senate Finance Committee next week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.