By Stewart Doan
© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.
WASHINGTON, March 8– Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday brushed off Republican demands that President Obama immediately forward all three pending free trade agreements (FTA) with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Capitol Hill for approval.

“Our view is let’s get Korea passed and then use that as a basis for encouraging finalization of the Colombia and Panama agreements and getting rapid ratification of those two agreements,” Vilsack told reporters the day after U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk notified Congress that the Obama administration was ready to work on legislation to implement the Korean FTA.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, pressed the White House to facilitate congressional consideration of all three agreements by July 1. “The time for action is now,” Camp stressed in a letter to Kirk.  “Therefore, I again request that you submit your action plan for advancing the Colombia and Panama agreements.”

Vilsack stated that Kirk was intensifying talks with the two countries to resolve outstanding issues, which he did not identify, but he argued that delaying a vote on the U.S.-Korea agreement (KORUS) would deny U.S. agriculture an “historic opportunity” to expand trade opportunities in the lucrative Asian marketplace.

“We don’t have the luxury of waiting until the stars are aligned perfectly on all three agreements,” the Secretary said, noting that a bilateral trade pact between Korea and the European Union is set to take effect on July 1 and that Seoul is currently negotiating similar terms with Australia, a major beef exporter.

It is expected that, once ratified by Congress, KORUS will expand U.S. farm exports to South Korea by $1.8 billion, support thousands of new jobs here at home, and help to position U.S. agriculture ahead of its competitors in the market. In 2010, Korea imported $5 billion worth of U.S. farm products, making it the fifth largest foreign buyer. The deal would eliminate duties on 60 percent of ag shipments to Korea and eliminate duties over time on many others, including beef.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, has vowed to block the agreement until Korea accepts imports of American beef from cattle over 30 months of age.

Despite Baucus’ position, Vilsack said the chairman “understands the competitive circumstances we find ourselves in relative to Australia and the fact that we have moved a good deal in terms of getting markets opened in Korea.” The secretary said there is a pathway over time to further expand the beef market consistent with international animal health standards that will make Baucus “more comfortable with the agreement.”

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