The Obama administration will likely submit the pending free trade deal with South Korea to Congress in late March after undergoing a series of congressional hearings next month, reports said Sunday.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk is expected to appear at hearings at the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee in mid-February to "pave the way for a mock markup of the draft implementing bill sometime in March, and submission of the final implementing legislation soon thereafter, possibly in late March or April," online magazine World Trade Online said, citing informed sources.
Kirk earlier this month called on Congress to ratify the Korea FTA before a similar pact between South Korea and the European Union goes into effect in July.
Assistant USTR Wendy Cutler met with South Korean Deputy Trade Minister Choi Seok-young in Los Angeles last week and finalized the legal language of the supplemental agreement reached in December to address U.S. concerns over the lopsided auto trade.
Auto trade has served as the biggest hurdle to getting congressional approval of the Korea FTA since it was signed in 2007 under the Bush administration.
The revised deal calls for a delayed phaseout of auto tariffs, among other things, in return for Washington's concessions on pork and medicine.
The U.S. exported 5,878 automobiles to South Korea in 2009, while South Korean auto shipments to the U.S. totaled 476,833, according to the United Auto Workers.
The Korea FTA was negotiated under the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) Act of 2002, which mandates Congress to vote yes or no without any amendments within 90 days of the deal's submission.
The fast-track authority, meant to facilitate negotiations of trade deals, was suspended in 2007 by the Democratic-controlled Congress.
"Taking into account the fast track timetable for considering the implementing legislation, this means that a House vote could take place by the end of May, and a Senate vote sometime in June,"
the online magazine said.
In his State of the Union address last week, Obama called on Congress to ratify the pending free trade agreement with South Korea as soon as possible as a means of doubling exports and creating jobs amid the worst recession in decades.
"Last month, we finalized a trade agreement with South Korea that will support at least 70,000 American jobs," Obama said at that time. "This agreement has unprecedented support from business and labor, Democrats and Republicans, and I ask this Congress to pass it as soon as possible."
Obama did not present a timeline on when the deal will be sent to Congress.
Free trade is seen as one of the potential areas of close cooperation between Obama and congressional Republicans, who regained control of the House in the midterm elections in November.
Many congressional Democrats, backed by trade unions, oppose free trade due to fears over job cuts.
Failure to present the deal to Congress by early this year would likely doom it, as Republicans vow to focus on domestic issues ahead of the presidential election in 2012.
The U.S. International Trade Commission has said the Korea FTA will help South Korea increase shipments to the U.S. by US$7 billion while enhancing U.S. exports to South Korea by $11 billion annually.
Some studies show the deal would increase annual two-way trade by more than $20 billion.
The U.S. goods trade deficit with South Korea was $10.6 billion in 2009, down $2.8 billion from 2008.