House approves trade deals with Colombia, Panama, South Korea

The House approved three free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, sending them to a Senate also expected to offer its approval later on Wednesday night. 

Passage was never in doubt, as the FTAs were part of an agreement to also renew an expired program championed by Democrats that offers benefits to workers who lose their jobs to trade.

The most controversial deal, with Colombia, was approved 262-167, and managed to win support from 31 Democrats. The deals with Panama and South Korea were far less controversial, as these countries are not wrapped up in the legacy of violence against union members that Colombia has.

The Panama deal was approved 300-129, and the South Korea agreement passed in a 278-151 vote. These agreements won support from 66 and 59 Democrats, respectively. Republicans broadly supported all three agreements, although 21 Republicans opposed the South Korea deal in the final vote, more than in the other two votes.

The House also easily approved the bill extending assistance to workers under the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, in a 307-122 vote. All voting Democrats supported it, while Republicans were split nearly down the middle, 118-122.

That bill, H.R. 2832, also reauthorizes the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, which offers scores of countries duty-free access to the U.S. market. Because the Senate has already approved it, it goes to the White House for President Obama's signature.

The Colombia deal was by far the most controversial in light of ongoing Democrat complaints about what they say is the failure to include enforceable labor rights in the agreement. During the floor debate, several Democrats argued the Colombia agreement failed to include new Colombian commitments on labor that the Obama administration helped negotiate, making them unenforceable under the agreement.

"If it's not in the bill, it doesn't exist," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said Democrats had learned the lesson of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico, which handled the issues of labor and environment in side letters, rather than as part of the main text.

"If we believe in workers' rights and we believe in human rights in this place … but when we write a trade agreement for Colombia, we're unwilling to write in the demands for the Colombian workers, that's what's wrong with this and that's why most of us will vote against it," McDermott said.

The trade deals with Panama and South Korea were far easier, not only because the lack the labor issues facing Colombia, but because both countries agreed to make changes to the deals negotiated under the Bush administration after President Obama won power. Democrats had blocked the deals when Bush held the White House.

Panama agreed to tax transparency steps, and South Korea agreed to what the U.S. side ultimately said was a more balanced agreement on autos.

The latter deal was so good that House Ways & Means Committee Ranking Member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) argued several times in favor of the South Korea agreement as a win for U.S. auto makers.

"This is a jobs bill," Levin said. "We have to be able to compete, and our auto industry can now compete."

But not all Democrats were convinced to support the Panama and South Korea agreements, which reflects a division within the Democrat caucus that was unlikely to be made whole regardless of how the deals were structured.

Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine), a long-time critic of the trade deals, bluntly blamed Obama for caving into what he called “Washington elites."

"Panama simply isn't a significant market opportunity for U.S. exports, and this FTA won't do anything to reduce our 9 percent unemployment," he said of the Panama free trade agreement. "But the big companies and the big banks want it, so President Obama is going to give in to the Washington elites, once again."

A Republican, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), joined Michaud in that assessment.

"Here we have roughly 9.1 percent unemployment in this country, due in no small part to the Washington elite jamming these job-destroying trade agreements down our throats," Jones said.

Late Tuesday night, hardcore Democrat opponents of the deal tied the FTAs to NAFTA, which they said failed to deliver labor and environmental protection. But here again, Levin defended the Panama and South Korea agreements by saying they went well beyond NAFTA on labor.

"This is really kind of an anti-NAFTA agreement," Levin said. "The labor standards are the new standards that we put into Peru and are incorporated here."

Undaunted, Democrats opposed to the FTAs spent several minutes near the end of the debate submitting written comments in opposition. One was a petition from 27,000 workers, and others were from the U.S. Steelworkers, textiles groups and other associations.

-- This story was updated at 6:18 to reflect additional votes, and again at 6:27 p.m.