The White House and Republicans say trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama will incease U.S. exports and create jobs.
WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) — Congress passed trade deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama on Wednesday, delivering them to President Obama in time for the South Korean president’s Thursday visit to Capitol Hill.
Most House Republicans voted in favor of the deals, while many Democrats opposed them. Several Democrats joined Republicans to pass the bills in the Senate. The deal with South Korea drew the most support in that chamber, passing 83-15, while the Columbia pact had the most opposition, passing by a 66-33 vote.
President Obama, who called the deals “a major win for American workers and businesses,” plans to sign the pacts.
“I’ve fought to make sure that these trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama deliver the best possible deal for our country, and I’ve insisted that we do more to help American workers who have been affected by global competition,” he said in a written statement.
The U.S. agriculture industry has been calling for the deals, which could re-open international markets for high-quality beef, poultry, wheat and soybeans. The U.S. auto industry is also a fan of the deals, which would cut back on South Korean tariffs that have hit Detroit automakers.
Labor, human rights and several consumer groups have opposed the deals, especially the one with Colombia, where labor leaders helping agricultural workers continue to be murdered.
The United States hasn’t had trade deals with some of the nations for three years, when previous agreements lapsed. The White House, Republicans and big business groups call the deals job creators, and say they will spur $13 billion in new exports each year.
At several points over the year, it looked like the trade deals might become another casualty of political gridlock.
Indeed, they are among a lonely few bills that this highly partisan Congress is expected to pass this year.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested Wednesday he doesn’t support the deals. “I don’t favor these bills, but the majority of this Senate does, so it was important that we move forward,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday that the trade deals are the kind of bipartisan work he’d like to see.
“They’re a good start. Three years too late. But still important to do,” McConnell said. “They’re a good first step and demonstrate how Washington can tackle the jobs crisis.”
Union groups say there’s no proof that trade deals will deliver tens of thousands of new jobs. And they say the deals don’t do enough to protect workers’ rights in those nations.
Watchdog group Public Citizen points to studies that say the deals will increase U.S. trade deficits, opening the door for more imports from Colombia, South Korea and Panama.
Critics also say the legislation doesn’t address South Korea’s currency, the won, which the International Monetary Fund said is undervalued by about 10%. That means South Korean imports to the United States could be slightly cheaper and U.S. exports to South Korea could be a little pricier.
“We should not be entering into a trade agreement with South Korea at a time when we know their currency policies are, at best, suspect,” said Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who planned to vote against the bill.
But the trade deals are a top priority of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which says the deals will directly help some 30,000 small and mid-sized exporters.
The months-long hold up on the bills was over a completely different piece of legislation.
The White House had been waiting to send the trade deals to Congress because the president first wanted Congress to pass a bill funding a jobs retraining program called Trade Adjustment Assistance, which helps workers whose employers have moved jobs overseas.
Last month, the Senate passed the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which would cost $900 million over three years. The House voted 307-122 to pass the Trade Adjustment Assistance program on Wednesday.