WASHINGTON — Congress approved free trade agreements Wednesday with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, ending a four-year drought in the forming of new trade partnerships and giving the White House and Capitol Hill the opportunity to show they can work together to stimulate the economy and put people back to work.
In rapid succession, the House and Senate voted on the three trade pacts, which the administration says could boost exports by $13 billion and support tens of thousands of American jobs. None of the votes were close, despite opposition from labor groups and other critics of free trade agreements who say they result in job losses and ignore labor rights problems in the partner countries.
President Barack Obama said passage of the agreements was “a major win for American workers and businesses.”
The agreements would lower or eliminate tariffs that American exporters face in the three countries. They also take steps to better protect intellectual property and improve access for American investors in those countries. The last free trade agreement completed was with Peru in 2007.
The House also passed and sent to Obama for his signature a bill to extend aid to workers displaced by foreign competition. Obama had demanded that the worker aid bill be part of the trade package.
The agreement with South Korea, the world’s 13th largest economy, was the biggest such deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada in 1994.
Despite the strong majorities, the debate was not without rancor.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said the “job-killing” agreements were a “complete flip-flop for President Obama, who won crucial swing states by pledging to overhaul our flawed trade policies.”
In Cartagena, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said, “Today is a historic day for relations between Colombia and the United States.” He added that the agreement with his country “is going to generate much well-being for our peoples.”
But Tarsicio Mora, president of Colombia’s CUT labor federation, said Colombia’s economy was not ready to compete with the U.S.
“Our country isn’t developed, it does not have the expertise much less the requirements for trade at this level,” Mora said. “The country should be clear as to who is responsible for the coming massacre, because industry, large and small businesses are going to be hit because we are not in a condition to compete.”
The United States has free trade relations with 17 nations. It could still take several months to work out the final formalities before the current agreements go into force. The South Korean parliament is expected to sign off on its agreement this month.
Printed on Friday, October 14, 2011 as: Overseas trade partnerships 'a win for businesses'