Congress Likely to Approve Free-Trade Deals Today

FTAs with South Korea, Panama and Columbia 'will give our ranchers, farmers, workers and businesses a competitive edge in three lucrative, fast-growing markets.'

Congress Wednesday is expected to finally sign off on free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia after five years of battling political, business and worker opposition to the deals.

The Senate Finance Committee's approval of the pacts Tuesday opened the way for final votes in both the Senate and House of Representatives, where they are expected to pass.

The vote came just ahead of a visit by South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak to Washington, which will highlight bilateral trade relations.

Lee is scheduled to address Congress on Thursday before travelling with President Obama to Michigan on Friday to tour a General Motors plant -- one source, the United States hopes, of future car sales to South Korea thanks to the FTA.

Negotiated in late 2006, the agreements have been pushed hard by the Obama administration as moves that will help boost the weak U.S. economy as well as encourage development in poorer Panama and Colombia.

"They will give our ranchers, farmers, workers and businesses a competitive edge in three lucrative, fast-growing markets," said Democratic Sen. Max Baucus.

"With the approval of these three free-trade agreements, we can begin taking the first steps toward rebuilding our image as a global leader on trade," said his Republican counterpart on the committee, Orrin Hatch.

No Slam Dunk

Originally signed by president George W. Bush, the accords ran into Democratic opposition early in Obama's term.

The Colombia pact stalled on U.S. concerns over violence against labor activists, and the Panama agreement faced hurdles tied to alleged money laundering.

Meanwhile, worries about opening South Korea's automobile market to U.S. cars and trucks held up that pact.

The concern about the free-trade agreements was evident in the Senate committee hearing on Tuesday.

The session was interrupted several times by protesters, one shouting "trade agreements kill people."

Colombia labor-union members last week said that their country's labor conditions and union-rights situation had not improved enough, and vowed to work with the AFL-CIO labor union to try to defeat that agreement.

But the Obama administration said the deals are expected to boost U.S. exports by $13 billion and benefit U.S. agriculture and manufacturing.

"These agreements will support tens of thousands of jobs across the country for workers making products stamped with three proud words: 'Made in America,'" Obama said in a statement as he sent the accords to Congress last week.

'I Want to See Folks in South Korea Driving Fords and Chevys and Chryslers'

To help persuade opponents, the White House backed a separate bill to renew the Trade Adjustment Assistance program (TAA), which compensates workers who lose jobs to overseas competition.

"The TAA provisions renew coverage for American workers whose jobs have been adversely affected by global competition," the White House said Tuesday.

Already passed by the Senate, the TAA is expected to be approved in the House at the same time as the three FTAs.

The South Korea deal also awaits approval of the parliament in Seoul, where opposition has likewise focused on ostensible threats to Korean jobs and businesses.

On Monday -- a day before he was to leave for the United States -- President Lee urged South Korea's parliament to ratify the FTA.

On Friday Obama and Lee are planning to tour a Michigan General Motors plant to tout the new pact, which eases access to the South Korean market for U.S. automakers, in provisional exchange for lower import tariffs on Korean cars in the United States.

"If Americans can buy Kias and Hyundais, I want to see folks in South Korea driving Fords and Chevys and Chryslers," Obama told Congress last month.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011


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