Congress on Wednesday passed long-awaited free-trade agreements that President Barack Obama has been urging lawmakers to pass for a while now.
The three trade pacts with Colombia, South Korea and Panama received broad bipartisan support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. President Obama has repeatedly called for their passage not only to increase exports but also to create jobs in the United States.
“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 in a statement after the votes were cast. “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.”
White House estimates have said the trade deals could increase American exports by at least $13 billion and the International Trade Commission has said the deals could create 250,000 American jobs.
The passage of the trade agreements, which have been stalled since 2007, gives President Obama a legislative victory. Former President George W. Bush first negotiated them but when he tried to force a vote on the Colombia deal in 2008, then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) blocked it. President Obama had renegotiated the deals but they have been held up this year over the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which provides healthcare, retraining and other benefits to workers hurt by increased international trade.
House Republicans opposed the program for being wasteful spending but Republican leaders reached a deal with the White House that would extend that program. Several Democrats also opposed the trade agreements because they did not think they would actually create jobs but instead harm U.S. jobs. They also were opposed to the Colombia bill because of the country’s violence toward labor workers.
“I am totally opposed to agreements that trade good American jobs for no jobs and I have yet to see a free trade bill that is a fair trade bill,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said.
San Bernardino County’s lone Democratic Rep. Joe Baca also released a statement after the vote that expressed his disappointment at their passage.
“The evidence is clear, free trade is a bad deal for America’s workers,” he said. “It ships too many good paying jobs overseas and limits economic growth by creating massive trade deficits. Nearly 700,000 American jobs have been lost as a direct result of NAFTA. In my congressional district in California’s Inland Empire, we have lost over 2,000 jobs since the passage of NAFTA in 1993.
“In that same time frame, the United States has gone from a $1.6 billion trade surplus to a $97 billion trade deficit with Mexico. If these three new trade agreements are signed into law – America will undoubtedly continue to lose jobs to our foreign competitors. In fact, the trade agreement with Korea alone is estimated to result in 159,000 American jobs being outsourced.”
Still, in the end the bills passed and those lawmakers who supported the trade agreements heralded the vote as being good for the economy.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who negotiated the deals under the Bush administration, said in an interview with POLITICO that the agreements were not only good for the country but also good for the world.
“Tonight’s vote is good for our country, it’s good for our countries, but it’s also good for America’s role in the world because it shows the United States Congress can move forward on these issues,” he said. “I think this will send a positive message around the world that the United States wants to be engaged and involved in trade.”
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