-- Congress passed a long-stalled trio of free-trade agreements Wednesday, lowering tariffs and other trade barriers with South Korea, Panama and Colombia in a package proponents said would create at least 70,000 jobs and unions insisted would put as many as 214,000 people out of work.
The three trade agreements will cut or eliminate duties on products from cars and SUVs that dominate the U.S.-Korea trade to construction equipment likely to be in demand as Panama boosts spending on infrastructure, the White House said.
The Senate passed the bills with an average of 75 votes per measure, the closest being the 66-33 tally in favor of the agreement with Colombia.
A related bill authorized $1.2 billion in spending over five years on benefits including health insurance and extended unemployment compensation for displaced workers.
The deals, reworked versions of agreements first negotiated by then-president George W. Bush, reflected President Obama's policy of linking more open trade to greater assistance for workers displaced by higher imports.
They were opposed by liberal groups that said there were no guarantees the deal with South Korea would boost U.S. auto exports, criticized Colombia for failing to crack down on violence against union activists and said the Panama agreement would take away legal tools used to fight tax evasion and money laundering.
"It's important to move ahead and equally important to move ahead right," said Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington State who voted for the revamped Korean deal. "We got a deal that is much fairer."
Business groups lobbied hard for approval. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce had estimated that failure to approve all three accords could result in 380,000 lost U.S. jobs. The administration said the Korea deal would add 70,000 jobs and boost the nation's $38.8 billion in exports to South Korea by as much as $11 billion, and said the Colombia deal would add thousands more jobs.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., called the package of agreements a "no-cost jobs plan "that would create a quarter-million jobs by boosting worldwide exports 1%.
Business owners such as John Schoch, president of Profile Products in Buffalo Grove, Ill., said the deals let their offshore customers buy their products more cheaply, without costing them money. His 200-worker company gets about 15% of its sales from exports, and its Korean customers pay duties of 3% to 8 %.
Business also feared losing market share to European competitors, because the European Union already has a trade deal with South Korea, the world's 15th largest economy, said Peter Bowe, president of Baltimore-based Ellicott Dredges, which makes equipment used in mining, navigation and beach restoration.
"The thing about manufacturing companies is that they almost always have a broad, deep supply chain," of domestic companies that sell parts or services to exporters, Bowe said. "There are many people who won't even know they are benefitting."
Many unions fought hard to stop the deals, focusing most on the pact with South Korea, the seventh-largest U.S. trading partner, which ran a $10.1 billion trade surplus with the U.S. last year.
The South Korea agreement was the largest U.S. free-trade agreement since the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in 1993.
It calls for Korea to lower tariffs on U.S. cars faster than the U.S. cuts duties on Korean-made Hyundais and Kias, and also let in some U.S. cars that don't meet Korean safety or environmental standards. Those concessions helped win support from the United Autoworkers Union. But the United Steelworkers Union, which represents many auto-parts workers, said the U.S. shouldn't have cut duties until Korea actually began importing more cars.
"We're going to open our market even further, and they're going to import even more cars," said Linda Andros, legislative counsel for the Steelworkers union. "With 9.1% unemployment and 13,000 manufacturing jobs lost last month, this is not the time for a big new trade deal."