President gets win as trade deals pass

The House and Senate on Wednesday approved three free-trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama, ending a years-long stalemate and giving President Obama a rare legislative victory.

All three agreements had broad Republican support, while they divided House Democrats. Only 31 Democrats supported the deal with Colombia, while 59 Democrats backed the deal with South Korea and 66 supported the Panama agreement.

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The South Korea trade deal is by far the most economically meaningful of the three pacts, and is the largest approved by Congress since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico during former President Clinton’s first term.

House passage, in a 278-151 vote, comes a day before South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s arrival in Washington, where he will be fêted at a state dinner and speak to a joint session of Congress. 

The Senate approved all three agreements later on Wednesday. The Korean deal passed on an 83-15 vote, while the vote was 77-22 on the Panama deal and 66-33 on the Colombia agreement.

Trade represents a rare source of comity between Obama and House Republicans, who have otherwise fought bitterly with the White House since regaining control of the lower chamber. Obama has included the deals in his package to create jobs and improve the economy, which is otherwise languishing in Congress.

The White House released a statement from the president after the votes saying that the deals' approval was a victory for "American workers and businesses."

"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," Obama said.

"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."

Passage of the deals was ensured after the White House reached a deal with congressional Republicans on extending a program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance that provides healthcare, retraining and other benefits to workers hurt by increased international trade.

Legislation extending that program, which some Republicans oppose as wasteful spending, along with another programs lowering duties on imports from developing countries, was also approved by the House. Nearly half of the GOP conference voted in favor of the trade assistance program.

Republicans trumpeted the benefits of the deals during Wednesday’s debate, arguing they would create jobs and boost the economy. Democrats voting against the deals said the deals would kill jobs and widen the trade deficit. 

Negotiations on all three agreements were completed by former President George W. Bush’s administration in 2007. Bush tried to force a vote on the Colombia deal in 2008, but was blocked by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was then the House Speaker.

All three agreements were modified in subsequent negotiations by the Obama administration but remained controversial, creating a rift between the White House and Democratic leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) opposes all three of the deals, and Pelsoi, now the House minority leader, criticized the Colombia deal during Wednesday’s debate. She called on the House to vote on legislation punishing China for its currency manipulation, approved in a Senate vote on Tuesday, before taking up the three free-trade agreements.

Pelosi said the Colombia deal would create only a few thousand jobs, while China’s manipulation of its currency costs the U.S. more than 1 million jobs each year.

The former Speaker voted against the Colombia deal but in favor of the other two deals. Her lieutenant, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), voted in favor of all three deals.

Most Democrats avoided direct criticism of the president in their comments, but there were exceptions. Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), an outspoken critic of free-trade policies, said Obama “is going to give in to the Washington elites, once again” because “the big companies and the big banks want” the deals.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and other administration officials have offered assurances that the Colombia deal won’t go into effect until that country completes all of the requirements of a labor action plan negotiated by the White House that ramps up punishment for those who use violence against labor organizers.

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But Pelosi said the plan wasn’t enough.

“If it’s not in the bill, it doesn’t exist,” she said, adding that she “lost … faith” in the deal when it became clear that language would not be included.

The other two deals won broader Democratic support, in part because they did not have the same labor issues but also because both countries had agreed to additional concessions after Obama won 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 and Means Committee ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) argued several times that the deal would be 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.”

Republicans criticized the administration for holding back the deals for too long.

“This is long overdue,” said House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). He said he agreed with the administration’s prediction that 250,000 jobs will be created over the next decade by passing the FTAs.

“The trade bills we’ll be voting on tonight are a start," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “There’s no reason we should have had to wait nearly three years for this president to send them up to Congress for a vote, but they’re a good start nonetheless.”