By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican U.S. congressional leaders urged President Barack Obama to work with them to win approval of long-stalled free trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea as early as possible in 2010.
"We agree with you that these trade agreements provide important new commercial opportunities that will benefit our economy and create jobs without adding to our nation's staggering budget deficit," House of Representatives Republican leader John Boehner and three other top Republicans said in a letter to Obama sent late on Thursday.
"We ask that you jump-start the implementation process through your leadership, particularly by promoting all three of these pending trade agreements when you speak to the nation in your State of the Union address," they said, referring to an annual speech to Congress usually in late January.
The letter followed a meeting between Obama and lawmakers on Wednesday in which Obama spoke favorably about wanting to move on the stalled agreements, according to Republican congressional aides.
There was no immediate comment from the White House.
A House Democratic aide said Obama told the bipartisan group of lawmakers that he supports expanded trade and that his November trip to Asia reinforced that support.
"But he promised no timetable for action, nor did the speaker," the aide said, referring to Nancy Pelosi, the House of Representative's top Democrat.
All three agreements have been stalled for a number of years, mainly because of concerns raised by Democrats.
Supporters see a window of opportunity for Congress to approve one or more of the trade deals in the first half of 2010, before the November congressional elections make that too politically difficult.
Obama opposed the Colombia and South Korean pacts during last year's presidential campaign. But since taking office, he has pledged to work with both countries and Congress to resolve concerns blocking approval of the deals.
"We offer our full support for your efforts and look forward to an opportunity to work steadfastly with you to implement each of these agreements as close to the start of next year as possible," the senior Republican lawmakers said.
MANY HOUSE DEMOCRATS OPPOSE PACTS
Since a large bloc of House Democrats oppose the free trade agreements, Obama will likely need strong support from Republicans to win approval of the pacts.
With the U.S. unemployment rate at 10 percent, the White House has been looking for ways to create new jobs without adding to the already huge budget deficit.
Proponents say approval of the free trade pacts would help do that. But many Democrats are skeptical and believe trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement are to blame for U.S. manufacturing jobs moving overseas.
U.S. trade officials have been working to resolve labor and tax haven issues blocking the Panama agreement, the smallest and least controversial of the three pacts.
Opponents of the Colombia deal say that country must take stronger action to stop violence against trade unionists and punish those responsible for thousands of killings.
The main stumbling block to the South Korean pact is concern over the agreement's auto provisions.
Critics say it is a one-sided deal that will open the U.S. market to more South Korean-made cars, without tearing down hidden barriers that block U.S. auto sales to that country.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Mohammad Zargham)