WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration said on Tuesday it is ready to ask Congress to approve a long-awaited free trade agreement with Panama now that a tax information deal between the two countries is in place.
Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a letter to leaders of the Senate Finance Committee and House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee that preparatory work on the agreement was completed and technical discussions with lawmakers could begin on approval legislation.
"We hope our discussions to review these documents can commence without delay so that we can work together to bring the benefits of this agreement home to American businesses, farmers and workers," Kirk wrote in the letter to the panels' chairmen and ranking members.
The movement on Panama may also clear a path for two other, more valuable free trade deals, with South Korea and Colombia, to be considered by Congress.
Republicans say they want all three deals sent to Congress by July, and will not advance one without the others.
Senior trade representative officials have said recently that the Colombia agreement could be ready for Congress within a matter of weeks after concerns about Colombian labor practices were addressed.
They also have said that they are ready to submit the South Korean pact -- the most valuable of the three -- for approval.
The White House said talks with Congress would start soon on how to advance the trade agenda but declined to give specifics on timing.
"We will be engaged in the coming days and weeks with the congressional leadership to determine the precise schedule, sequencing and packaging of the three fta's (free trade agreements)," said Michael Froman, White House deputy national security adviser for international economics.
However, he also made clear that Colombia had to meet goals set in an action plan to advance toward a pact.
"There is an action plan. There are a series of steps the Colombian government has committed to take. There are a series of milestones and dates," Froman said. "We will be evaluating Colombia's progress on the items that they've committed to and them make a judgment from there," he told reporters.
The United States and Colombia earlier this month announced a three-stage labor "action plan" to address concerns about workers rights, anti-union violence and criminal impunity in the Latin American country. One deadline falls on Friday.
Kirk said in the letter that Panama had now fulfilled commitments that his office had required for that pact to be ready for congressional consideration.
On Monday, Panama's new tax information exchange agreement with the United States went into effect, allowing the two countries to seek information from each other on all types of national taxes in civil and criminal matters.
The long-delayed Panama, Colombia and South Korea free-trade pacts were first signed by former President George W. Bush, but he was unable to persuade a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives to approve them due to opposition from labor unions.
Prospects for approval have improved since Republicans recaptured control of the House in last year's election. Republicans have been pressing Obama to send the three trade pacts to Congress for a vote by July 1.
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Leslie Adler and Paul Simao)