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Congress OKs Korea, Panama, Colombia trade deals

The U.S. Capitol dome and U.S. Senate in Washington
The U.S. Capitol dome and U.S. Senate in Washington

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Congress on Wednesday 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.

The Colombia agreement, reflecting Democrats' concerns about labor conditions, garnered the least support but still was approved by margins of 66-33 in the Senate and 262-167 in the House.

"The free trade agreement ends the uncertainty that has been discouraging long-term investment and it now guarantees to all investors stability in the rules of the game," Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on television.

"The moment has come to think big and work for a successful implementation and to take advantage of this treaty, which in commercial terms is the most important one we have signed in our history."

Obama sent the three agreements to Capitol Hill nine days ago, four to five years after they were negotiated.

The deals had foundered mainly on Democratic Party concerns over labor practices abroad and fear that increased competition would cost U.S. jobs.

OPPORTUNITIES LOST

U.S. farmers and big agricultural exporters are excited about new sales opportunities for beef, pork, poultry, corn, wheat, soybeans and other food products in the three markets, but they lament the long delay as a lost opportunity.

"We can't underestimate how much U.S. agriculture has lost out," while the trade pacts were stalled, said Devry Boughner, director of international business relations for the food, agriculture and risk management giant Cargill.

"Corn, soybeans and wheat exports from the U.S. have gone from a 78 percent market share in the Colombian market to 28 percent, owing in part to the fact that Canada got to Colombia first," Boughner said.

David Dreier, chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, called approval of the pacts a small step toward restoring U.S. leadership on trade.

Although Obama was slow to move the agreements, he negotiated side deals with each country to address concerns raised by Democrats and reduce opposition to the pacts.

He also insisted Congress renew a worker retraining program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, which the House did on Wednesday along with the pacts.

In a study in 2007, the U.S. International Trade Commission estimated the U.S.-South Korea deal would lift U.S. imports from Korea to $6.9 billion a year by $6.4 billion, with gains in areas like clothing, footwear, electronics and cars.

A study by the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute estimated the agreement will cost about 159,000 jobs over seven years. The White House says it will help create or maintain more than 70,000, while congressional Republicans see as many as 250,000 new jobs.

All three pacts were negotiated and signed during the administration of former President George W. Bush, who was unable to win their approval from the Democratic-controlled Congress before leaving office in 2009.

The oldest and most controversial pact, the one with Colombia, was signed in November 2006 and the other two accords in mid-2007. Since then, other countries have negotiated scores of new trade agreements around the world.

Ted Austell, a vice president at Boeing, said the aircraft maker expected to benefit both directly and indirectly. "When commerce increases, downstream that turns into aircraft orders. More movement of people and certainly of goods opens up more opportunity to sell aircraft," he said.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Peter Cooney and Christopher Wilson)

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