- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2011

President Obama on Friday signed the nation’s largest free-trade agreement since NAFTA — and the first of his administration — with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

“These trade agreements will significantly boost American exports, support tens of thousands of American jobs and protect labor rights, the environment and intellectual property,” the White House said in a statement.

The signing culminated a burst of bipartisan lawmaking, as congressional Republicans supplied the bulk of the votes earlier this month to get the long-stalled agreements to the president. Many in Mr. Obama’s own political base, notably labor unions, have been far more skeptical of the trade pacts.

“These three job-creating trade agreements send a strong signal that we are committed to tearing down barriers to trade and investment for American goods and services,” said Utah Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch in a statement. “But we can’t stop here.”

U.S. government figures project that the three deals will likely increase U.S. exports by over $12 billion, add $14 billion to U.S. GDP, and collectively create more than 250,000 American jobs, according to the White House.

“This closes a very important chapter,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of Council of the Americas. “My hope is today’s events will be the beginning of a renewed effort from the United States to engage in trade.”

These trade agreements were originally negotiated under President George W. Bush in 2006 and 2007, but languished on Capitol Hill with Democrats in control of both chambers. Approval took even longer than the controversial NAFTA deal with Canada and Mexico to push through.

“They do not usually take this long,” Mr. Farnsworth said. “Hopefully, it won’t take so long for the next trade agreements we have. I don’t think it’s in anybody’s interest to keep them waiting so long.”

With the political spotlight turning to jobs, the Obama administration renegotiated the three deals earlier this year in a way that satisfied many congressional Democrats, including securing money for an assistance program for workers affected because of increased import competition.

South Korea agreed to new terms that would give U.S. exporters more access to their auto and beef markets. Colombia agreed to work to satisfy complaints about its labor environment . And Panama agreed to new financial regulations and transparency.

Once the White House sent the trade agreements to Congress, they were passed within days.

“At the end of the day, both parties got what they wanted,” Mr. Farnsworth said. “Republicans got all three trade agreements, and Democrats got adjustment for displaced workers. I think it worked.”

Said House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio Republican in a statement after the signing, “While this day took too long to come, manufacturers, farmers, and small businesses can now be more competitive in the global marketplace. By boosting American exports, these agreements — part of the Republican jobs plan — help the private sector put Americans back to work.

• Tim Devaney can be reached at tdevaney@washingtontimes.com.

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