WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama on Monday sent long-stalled free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea to the congress and pressed lawmakers there to approve them “without delay.”
“These agreements will support tens of thousands of jobs across the country for workers making products stamped with three proud words: Made in America,” Obama said in a statement.
The move, instantly applauded by his Republican foes and the US business community, came after a nearly three-year feud fed by market-access and labor worries and a fight over aid to US workers displaced by overseas competition.
The Republican-held House of Representatives, expected to act first on the accords before the Senate acts, will likely approve them next week, according to Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office.
“They will be a top priority for the House,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement that charged Obama’s years-long delay in submitting them to the congress “was unacceptably long and likely cost jobs.”
Boehner said the accords would pass “in tandem” with Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program that provides financial help to workers hurt by overseas competition, in accordance with a Democratic demand.
That compromise — Republicans had opposed TAA — was likely to grease the legislative wheels and allow for quick approval of all three accords despite concerns among powerful US labor unions, historically strong Democratic allies.
Obama had placed passage of all three deals at the heart of his blueprint for boosting the US economy and tackling stubbornly high unemployment with a little more than a year to go before he faces the voters again in November 2012.
The accords, negotiated and signed by Obama’s Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, had run into Democratic opposition early in Obama’s term.
The Colombia accord stalled on US concerns over violence against labor activists, the Panama agreement faced hurdles tied to alleged money laundering and worries about opening South Korea’s automobile market held up that pact.
“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, along with the bipartisan agreement on Trade Adjustment Assistance,” said Obama.
“These three trade agreements will support American jobs and help create opportunities to expand for American businesses. I look forward to seeing them passed,” said Boehner.
“Submission of these long-delayed deals is welcome news to those Americans looking for work and to job creators who have waited too long for fair access to these foreign markets,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The US Chamber of Commerce, which represents US business, said Colombia currently collects $100 in tariffs on US goods for every $1 of US duties on Colombian goods and “a similar lopsidedness” exists with Panama and South Korea.
“America is finally getting back in the game,” said US Chamber President Thomas Donohue. “These agreements are about creating jobs and ensuring a level playing field for trade.”
Obama himself made the case for approving the accords in messages attached to the ratification paperwork for each agreement, vowing that the South Korea pact would “support more than 70,000 American jobs.”
Failure to approve the agreement would see US market share in South Korea — already behind China and Japan, and just ahead of the European Union — erode further, doing “damage to our leadership position in the region,” he said.
Obama described the Colombia accord as “a historic development in our relations,” praising Bogota as “a steadfast strategic partner of the United States and a leader in the region.”
“The agreement reflects the commitment of the United States to supporting democracy and economic growth in Colombia. It will also help Colombia battle production of illegal crops by creating alternative economic opportunities,” he said.