A U.S. Senate panel on Tuesday backed long-delayed trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that are expected to boost U.S. exports by about $13 billion a year, paving the way for final approval.
The full Senate and House are poised to approve the agreements on Wednesday, just nine days after President Barack Obama sent them to Congress. Obama has said they would help support tens of thousands American jobs.
The panel approved the South Korea and Panama agreements on voice votes and the Colombia pact by a 18-6 vote.
U.S. farm and manufactured goods exports are expected to rise under all three agreements as tariffs are phased out, with the biggest gains coming from the South Korea agreement. The deals also open new markets for U.S. companies in service sectors such as banking, insurance and express delivery.
The deals "will give our ranchers, farmers, workers and businesses a competitive edge in three lucrative fast-growing markets," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said.
The speed at which the deals have moved through Congress contrasts with the four to five years they were stuck at the White House because of mostly Democratic Party concerns.
Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the panel, said the long period of inaction had "weakened" U.S. leadership in global trade and "led many to doubt whether the United States remains serious about addressing the world's and its own economic challenges."
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday he expected all three agreements to pass with bipartisan support. Opponents say they expect more than half of House Democrats to go against Obama and oppose the deals.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell also said he expected approval of all three pacts, which would come just a day before South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks to a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
GETTING OFF THE SIDELINES
The deal between the United States and South Korea, the world's largest and 14th largest economies, respectively, would be the biggest U.S. trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into force in January 1994.
The U.S. International Trade Commission, in a September 2007 study, estimated the Korea pact would boost U.S. imports from that country by $6.4 billion to $6.9 billion, with gains in areas such as clothing, leather goods, footwear, electronics, machinery and cars.
Unions generally oppose the agreements, fearing they will encourage companies to move their operations abroad.
For Senator Rob Portman, the vote on the South Korea pact will be particularly satisfying since he started negotiations with the longtime ally in February 2006, when he was U.S. trade representative under former President George W. Bush.
The two countries reached a deal 14 months later and signed the agreement in June 2007, but Bush was unable to win approval of the accord and the other deals with Panama and Colombia before leaving office in January 2009.
"These agreements have been sitting on the sidelines as the U.S. sat on the sidelines," Portman said, adding that rival deals between the European Union and South Korea and Colombia and Canada were negotiated, signed and put into force while the U.S. deals languished.
Obama has worked to address long-standing Democratic concerns about the pacts.
The White House renegotiated auto provisions of the South Korean agreement to get a better deal for American auto companies, which complained the original agreement failed to tear down South Korean barriers to foreign cars even as it phased out the few remaining U.S. auto tariffs.
It also negotiated a tax information exchange agreement with Panama to address concerns about that country's bank secrecy laws, and an "action plan" with Colombia to help it strengthen its labor regime and protections for workers.
Many Democrats still believe Colombia needs to do more to stop killings of trade unionists and prosecute those responsible. Votes last week in a House committee showed support for the Colombia deal was the weakest of the three, although it still sailed through by a two-to-one margin.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said approving the pact would encourage Colombia to make further progress on human rights while rejecting it could jeopardize the gains the country has already made.
"We've seen an incredible transition taking place and I'm voting for the future," Kerry said, while acknowledging that Bogota still needed to do more to improve human rights.
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