Congress passed three free-trade agreements Wednesday night with South Korea, Colombia and Panama in what is the nation’s biggest trade deal since NAFTA and the first for the Obama administration, with the promise of boosting the economy through the creation of tens of thousands of jobs.
The largest of the three deals is with South Korea, which alone could create some 70,000 jobs here and increase U.S. exports by more than $10 billion.
President Obama called the passage a major win for American businesses that will open new markets for American goods.
Both chambers spent all day debating the pacts and putting the final tweaks on the agreements that had been in the works for several years. In the House, the bipartisan votes were 300-129 in favor of Panama, 278-151 for South Korea and 262-167 for Colombia. They also renewed trade adjustment assistance by a 307-122 vote.
In the Senate, South Korea passed 83-15; Panama, 77-22; and Colombia, 66-33.
“These jobs are there, they’re available to us, and we’ve got to get on with these trade agreements,” said Rep. Mike Kelly, Pennsylvania Republican.
Once signed by Mr. Obama, the deals could go into effect in a few months.
This is the largest American free-trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1995. The nation’s last trade pact was completed with Peru in 2007.
Supporters, who include Republicans and many Democrats, say these agreements will create tens of thousands of jobs for Americans and increase U.S. exports by $13 billion a year.
“I believe that trade means jobs,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, “and America and Indiana need jobs.”
Opponents, a minority of Democrats who have lost traction with their own party, tried to compare the three trade pacts to NAFTA, saying they will hurt American jobs and companies.
“The question should be, ‘Will these trade agreements create jobs?’” Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, said on the House floor. “The answer is, ‘Yes.’ Will they create jobs in America? The answer is, ‘No.’”
He was joined in opposition by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, Ohio Democrat. “The problem with our trade policies is, we export more jobs than products,” she said.
Treaty supporters said the U.S. will benefit on balance because economies such as that of South Korea have far more barriers to U.S. exports than the U.S. puts on their imports.
Both parties argued that these deals would help level the playing field.
The trade agreements got strong support from almost all of the leading business lobbies.
“Our markets are overwhelmingly open to countries all around the world,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat. “Again and again, we find that our trading partners have significant barriers and are remarkably closed to us.”
Opponents also continued to raise concerns about Colombia’s labor environment, although many Democrats are satisfied with steps the country has taken to improve those conditions.
Some Democrats raised doubts about whether South Korea would open its market to the U.S. auto industry. Mr. DeFazio said Koreans who own American cars have not received parking spaces at work and have been targeted for tax audits.
“Kiss the remainder of the auto industry and auto parts goodbye with this agreement,” he said.
But Mr. Kelly reminded lawmakers that more than 60 percent of Korean cars sold here are made by Americans.
Rep. Michael H. Michaud, Maine Democrat, raised concerns about all three deals. He compared Panama’s gross domestic product to that of the city of Portland in his home state.
“Why are we even considering these trade agreements?” he asked.
“The working people and the middle class don’t want the trade agreements, not with Panama, not with Korea, and not with Colombia. It’s unjust, these agreements, to the American people.”
Nevertheless, these concerns did not slow bipartisan support for the agreements.
“All of us want to create jobs,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat. “If anyone living in this town doesn’t know that, he’s been living under a rock.”
“If we compete, we win,” added 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.”