By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama is committed to finalizing free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama but faces an uncertain outcome, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.
Speaking at a conference of leaders from the Western Hemisphere, Clinton expressed some chagrin at seeing colleagues from Colombia and Panama, which have been pushing for final approval of trade deals signed by the Bush administration and have worked to address U.S. concerns.
"We are, as President Obama said in the State of the Union, committed to our free-trade agreements with both countries but we're also facing very difficult challenges," she said. "But I am absolutely here to reiterate that commitment."
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk echoed Clinton's comments in a speech to the same group.
"It is our goal to bring them to Congress as soon as we can. I cannot put a timeline on that, but they're important to us," Kirk said.
The pacts are unpopular with many Democrats and the White House has been reluctant to force a vote on them, especially ahead of the November congressional elections.
The delay is especially disappointing for Colombia, which signed its agreement with the United States in November 2006 and whose neighbor Venezuela has cut off trade because of Colombia's close defense ties with the United States.
Colombian Trade Minister Luis Guillermo Plata, speaking at the same conference, repeated his hope Obama would ask Congress to approve the trade deal before Colombian President Alvaro Uribe leaves office in August.
However, the White House has given no indication that Obama intends to do that.
PRIVATE SECTOR HELP URGED
Kirk said it was important to "get the deals done right," so that the fight to win approval of the pacts does not create more hostility in the United States to trade.
Clinton acknowledged both Colombia and Panama have worked hard to deal with concerns raised by the U.S. administration and Congress. U.S. lawmakers want Colombia to do more to stop the killing of trade unionists and pursue those responsible, while they are pushing for changes in Panama's labor regime and bank secrecy laws.
"I think we are going to pursue this," Clinton said. "I can't predict the outcome but it is something that the president and I in particular feel strongly about.
"We just have to deal with the political winds and we need more help from the private sector," she added, saying better advocacy was required to explain "the importance of trade and why it is good for the United States and American workers."
Clinton and the others spoke at the Council of the Americas' 40th annual Washington Conference, which is taking place at the State Department and is attended by heads of state, U.S. Cabinet members, government ministers from the region and congressional leaders.
(Additional reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)