US Congress OKs Korea, Panama, Colombia trade deals

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.

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