WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress yesterday approved long-delayed trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that are expected to lift exports by about $13 billion a year and give U.S. employment a boost.
Republicans and Democrats joined together in the House of Representatives and the Senate to pass the pacts, which now go to President Barack Obama to sign into law.
Obama — who sent the three agreements to Capitol Hill nine days ago, four to five years after they were negotiated — welcomed Congress’ passage of the deals as “a major win for American workers and businesses.”
“Tonight’s vote, with bipartisan support, will significantly boost exports that bear the proud label ‘Made in America,’ support tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs and protect labor rights, the environment and intellectual property,” Obama said in a statement.
U.S. farm and manufactured goods exports are expected to rise under the three agreements as tariffs are phased out. The pacts also open new markets for U.S. companies in service sectors such as banking, insurance and express delivery. “These free trade agreements will give our economy a much-needed shot in the arm and create tens of thousands of American jobs,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the bipartisan votes showed there were some areas where his party and Obama could find common ground despite a battle over jobs legislation and many other clashes in the past.
“For our part, Senate Republicans are ready to work with him on an even more robust trade agenda,” McConnell said.
Critics like Senator Sherrod Brown said the deals would harm U.S. employment, though the Obama administration and other proponents believe they will support tens of thousands jobs.
Brown urged Obama to turn away from “NAFTA-style” agreements like the three deals and change trade policy to “put American manufacturers and workers first.”
The biggest gains are expected from the pact with South Korea, a longtime U.S. ally and a $1 trillion economy in a region dominated by China. The agreement will help anchor the United States in the fast-growing Asia Pacific region so it can share in its growth, analysts say.
The U.S.-South Korea deal is the biggest U.S. trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement that took effect in January 1994.
The action came a day before South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. In a speech to a U.S. business group, Lee called the pact a “very significant achievement” that will create jobs in both countries.
The Senate voted 83-15 to approve the South Korea deal and the House 278-151. The Panama agreement cleared the Senate by a vote of 77-22 and the House 300-129.