- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Senate panel on Tuesday cleared a major hurdle toward passing three long-delayed trade agreements that supporters say could create thousands of jobs and boost U.S. exports.

The agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, the first to be passed under President Obama, would be a rare instance of bipartisan cooperation on economic policy and could be ready for Mr. Obama’s signature in a matter of days.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the South Korean and Panama deals unanimously, and voted 18-6 to send the Colombia agreement to the full Senate for final approval as well. Several Democratic senators dissented on the Colombia agreement because of continued concerns about Colombia’s labor environment.

The full House of Representatives, meanwhile, began consideration of the three trade agreements on the floor late Tuesday evening.

Both chambers will now take up the measures and are expected pass the agreements Wednesday and send them to the White House for final approval.

The expedited schedule clears the way for the three trade agreements to be passed in time for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s speech to a joint session of Congress and state dinner at the White House, both Thursday.

“Despite the many obstacles thrown in our way, we and our trading partners persevered,” Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, ranking Republican on the committee, said during the markup.

“All of us want to create jobs,” added committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat. “If anyone living in this town doesn’t know that, he’s been living under a rock.”

The markup session did not go entirely smoothly, as at least three protesters were evicted by Capitol Hill police during the session after interrupting both Mr. Baucus and Mr. Hatch. The first two protesters shouted, as Mr. Baucus was speaking, that Colombian forces were “killing labor leaders.”

Union concerns have slowed progress on the trade pacts for many Democratic members. Mr. Hatch and other Republicans also raised objections to Mr. Obama’s insistence that a worker-retraining program be refunded as one price for passage of the trade deals.

Treaty supporters said the U.S. will benefit on balance because economies such as South Korea have far more barriers to U.S. exports that the U.S. puts on their imports.

“The fact is these agreements are fairly one-sided in our favor,” Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said.

Both parties argued these deals will help level the playing field. The trade agreements got strong support from virtually all of the leading business lobbies.

“Our markets are overwhelmingly open to countries all around the world,” Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said. “Again and again, we find that our trading partners have significant barriers and are remarkably closed to us.”

In the House, which began debate Tuesday evening, supporters offered similar arguments.

“If we compete, we win,” said Rep. David Dreier, California Republican. “It will send a signal to the rest of the world that the United States of America is back open for business.”

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