WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A years-long deadlock on free trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama appeared close to an end on Monday as President Barack Obama formally submitted the pacts to Congress for approval.
“The series of trade agreements I am submitting to Congress today will make it easier for American companies to sell their products in South Korea, Colombia, and Panama and provide a major boost to our exports,” Obama said in a statement.
The three deals were all negotiated during the Republican administration of President George W. Bush, but he was unable to win approval for them from a wary Democratic-controlled Congress before leaving office in January 2009.
“We’ve worked hard to strengthen these agreements to get the best possible deal for American workers and businesses, and I call on Congress to pass them without delay,” Obama said.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican, said he expected the House to pass the agreements next week.
Obama has touted the trade deals as a vital part of his effort to revitalize the stagnant U.S. recovery and generate new jobs, considered crucial to his 2012 re-election chances.
Some Republicans put potential job gains in the hundreds of thousands, while detractors predict they will cause job losses through increased imports and more factories moving abroad.
The pacts are expected to boost U.S. exports by about $13 billion annually, which the administration estimates would help create tens of thousands of jobs at a time when U.S. unemployment remains stubbornly high.
The Colombia agreement, the oldest of the deals, was signed nearly five years ago. The others were signed in mid-2007. Republicans have pressed for votes on the pact since winning control of the House of Representative last year.
The final hurdle to Obama submitting the agreements fell when House Republicans agreed to vote on a Trade Adjustment Assistance program to help workers who have lost their jobs because of trade, which the White House said was a needed complement.
“While the delay was unacceptably long and likely cost jobs, I am pleased the Obama Administration has finally done its part and sent these important trade pacts to Congress,” House Speaker John Boehner said.
“Now that all three agreements have been transmitted, they will be a top priority for the House. We will quickly begin the required process to consider these bills and intend to vote on them consecutively and in tandem with Senate-passed TAA legislation,” Boehner added.
Sending the trade accords up for ratification should help smooth the way for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s October 13 visit to the White House. The South Korea pact is the largest of its kind since the North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into force in 1994.
Obama slowly came to embrace the pacts, and over the past year and a half has worked to address Democratic Party concerns.
The Colombia pact is strongly opposed by U.S. labor groups, who complain that Colombia has not done enough to stop killings of labor leaders and prosecute those responsible.
The Obama administration this year negotiated a labor “action plan” with Colombia to address the violence concerns and strengthen the country’s labor laws. But many Democrats and the AFL-CIO labor federation remain opposed to the pact.
The White House renegotiated auto provisions of the South Korea pact to win over Ford Motor Co and other critics who complained the original deal favored South Korea too much.
It also negotiated a tax information and exchange treaty with Panama to address concerns about investors using the country’s bank secrecy laws to avoid paying U.S. taxes.
Additional reporting by Doug Palmer; writing by Matt Spetalnick and Doug Palmer; editing by Eric Beech and Mohammad Zargham