Bush notifies Congress of plans
WASHINGTON – President Bush notified Congress on Friday that he plans to sign a free trade agreement with Panama.The deal – along with two similar agreements with Peru and Colombia – faces an uncertain future in Congress, where Democrats are demanding additional language in such areas as protecting American workers from unfair competition from countries with lax labor laws.House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has been leading discussions with administration officials over proposals the Democrats want to see before they will support any future free trade deals.The administration signaled a new willingness to consider those demands after Democrats won control of the House and Senate in last fall’s elections.The original goal had been to wrap up the talks this week to meet a 90-day deadline for notifying Congress about any pending trade deals before the July 1 deadline when Bush’s current authority to negotiate trade agreements expires.However, Rangel and Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said in a joint statement Thursday that talks with the administration will extend past this week.”We will continue to pursue agreement on these issues in the coming days because re-establishing a bipartisan foundation on trade policy is more critical than meeting a procedural deadline,” the two men said in their statement.Bush had already notified Congress of his intent to sign free trade deals with Peru and Colombia.The president has asked Congress to extend his negotiating authority, which lets him negotiate trade deals that Congress must approve on an up-or-down vote without amendments, but the prospects for that occurring hinge on a successful conclusion of the talks with Democrats.A U.S. negotiating team has been in South Korea since Monday trying to wrap up a free trade agreement with that country before the deadline for the pact to be considered under Bush’s current fast-track authority.That agreement will be the last that can be approved under the current fast-track authority. The administration last week said it was abandoning hopes for completing talks in time for a free trade deal with Malaysia. That agreement, when it is completed, will have to be covered by new fast-track legislation.On Friday, White House officials expressed pessimism about the prospect for the Korean talks.”Unless the negotiations show some sign of significant progress in the next few hours, this agreement will most likely not come together,” White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said.Later Friday, Sean Spicer, chief spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, said that the Korea talks were continuing “on a number of outstanding issues.” He said the discussions would have to be wrapped up by noon Sunday EDT for the administration to notify Congress in time for the deal to be covered by the current fast-track authority.In a joint statement, Rangel and Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., said that Democrats expect to use the 90-day notification period for discussions with the administration over “incorporating necessary changes on outstanding issues such as labor, environment and intellectual property that must be addressed before the bills will receive broad bipartisan support in Congress.”
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