Posted by: mulrickillion | October 13, 2011

Congress Passes Trade Deals, Ending 5-Year Standoff

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A Colombian flower grower. The pact will make Colombian goods cheaper in the United States. Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters.

By Binyamin Appelbaum and Jennifer Steinhauer, Oct 12, 2011 — WASHINGTON — Congress passed three long-awaited free trade agreements on Wednesday, ending a political standoff that has stretched across two presidencies. The move offered a rare moment of bipartisan accord at a time when Republicans and Democrats are bitterly divided over the role that government ought to play in reviving the sputtering economy.

The approval of the deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama is a victory for President Obama and proponents of the view that foreign trade can drive America’s economic growth in the face of rising protectionist sentiment in both political parties. They are the first trade agreements to pass Congress since Democrats broke a decade of Republican control in 2007.

All three agreements cleared both chambers with overwhelming Republican support just one day after Senate Republicans prevented action on Mr. Obama’s jobs bill.

The passage of the trade deals is important primarily as a political achievement, and for its foreign policy value in solidifying relationships with strategic allies. The economic benefits are projected to be small. A federal agency estimated in 2007 that the impact on employment would be “negligible” and that the deals would increase gross domestic product by about $14.4 billion, or roughly 0.1 percent.

The House voted to pass the Colombia measure, the most controversial of the three deals because of concerns about the treatment of unions in that country, 262 to 167; the Panama measure passed 300 to 129, and the agreement concerning South Korea passed 278 to 151. The votes reflected a clear partisan divide, with many Democrats voting against the president. In the Senate, the Colombia measure passed 66 to 33, the Panama bill succeeded 77 to 22 and the South Korea measure passed 83 to 15. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, voted against all three measures.

The House also passed a measure to expand a benefits program for workers who lose jobs to foreign competition by a vote of 307 to 122. The benefits program, a must-have for labor unions, passed with strong Democratic support. The Senate previously approved the measure.

Proponents of the trade deals, including Mr. Obama, Republican leaders and centrist Democrats, predict that they will reduce prices for American consumers and increase foreign sales of American goods and services, providing a much-needed jolt to the sluggish economy.

“At long last, we are going to do something important for the country on a bipartisan basis,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader.

However, Mr. Obama’s support for the measures has angered important parts of his political base, including trade unions, which fear job losses to foreign competition. Many Democrats took to the House floor Wednesday to speak in opposition to the deals.

“What I am seeing firsthand is devastation that these free trade agreements can do to our communities,” said Representative Mike Michaud, a Maine Democrat who once worked in a paper mill.

Both chambers raced to approve the deals before a joint Congressional session Thursday with the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak.

The revival of support for the deals, originally negotiated by the Bush administration five years ago, comes at a paradoxical political moment, when both conservative Republicans and the Occupy Wall Street protesters have taken antitrade positions, albeit for different reasons. In a debate among Republican presidential candidates Tuesday night, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, accused China of manipulating the value of its currency to flood the United states with cheap goods, while populist sentiment on the left opposes the trade agreements because of the potential for American job losses.

Mr. Obama cited similar concerns in criticizing the agreements during the 2008 presidential campaign, but he later embraced the deals as a key part of his agenda to revive the economy. To win Democratic support, the White House reopened negotiations with the three countries to make changes demanded by industry groups and unions, and insisted that the expansion of benefits for displaced workers be tied to passage of the trade agreements. . . .

Congress Passes Trade Deals, Ending 5-Year Standoff – NYTimes.com

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