WASHINGTON -- Ending a long stalemate, Congress approved three new trade agreements Wednesday evening, signing off on deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama in an attempt to increase U.S. exports and create thousands of jobs.
Among the potential winners are U.S. agricultural producers who grow cherries, potatoes and apples -- big crops in Washington and the Northwest. Farmers expect sales to rise substantially when tariffs are lifted.
"There is no question that these agreements will increase jobs," Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said in a speech on the House floor.
Mark Powers, vice president of the Yakima-based Northwest Horticultural Council, said, "We export 30 percent of the fruit we grow. This is quite important to the health of our industry."
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The pacts, approved by wide margins in the House and Senate, represent the nation's biggest trade deals since passage of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
In the House, the South Korean agreement passed 278 to 151, the Panama agreement by a vote of 300 to 129 and the Colombia agreement, 262 to 167.
Later in the Senate, with the support of Washington Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, the South Korean agreement passed 83 to 15, the Panama agreement by a vote of 77 to 22, and the Colombia agreement, 66 to 33.
President Obama, who lobbied hard for the agreements, said the South Korean trade pact alone -- the largest of the three -- would create 70,000 new jobs in the United States.
Members of Congress rushed to wrap up the deals before South Korean President Lee Myung-bak delivers a speech today to a joint session of Congress. Tonight, he plans to go to the White House as part of his official state visit.
After the vote, Obama said he looked forward to signing the landmark agreements, which he called "a major win for American workers and businesses." The president wants to double U.S. exports by 2014.
"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," Obama said. "American automakers, farmers, ranchers and manufacturers, including many small businesses, will be able to compete and win in new markets."
While the deals marked a clear win for Obama, Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio claimed credit as well, calling them part of the GOP's broader jobs agenda.
Many Republicans were irked that the deals, first negotiated by the administration of President George W. Bush, had languished for so long.
"Frankly, it shouldn't have taken this long for it to happen," Boehner said. "While a Democrat-controlled House sat idle, other nations expanded their trading ties, and American competitiveness suffered."
Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the agreement with South Korea would benefit Washington potato growers and processors by immediately ending an 18 percent tariff they must pay when exporting their products.
Calling the trade agreements "critical to my constituents," Hastings predicted that apple growers would see a surge in their sales as well.
"Those agreements will allow our growers to compete globally," said Matt Harris, director of governmental affairs for the Washington State Potato Commission. "The global playing field (on frozen french fries) had tilted toward Europe. Hopefully we can now maintain that market and grow that market."
He said the potato industry contributes $4.6 billion to the state's economy and is connected to 23,500 jobs.
While the pacts divided many Democrats across the nation, they united most members of Congress from Washington, where one of every three jobs is linked to international trade.
"If we're going to grow, we need access to other markets," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., noting that 95 percent of the world's population lives outside of the U.S.
"This will assist us greatly with competing against Chile; they've had zero tariffs into Colombia," said Powers, with the horticultural council, which represents growers of apples, pears and cherries in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
His growers saw a 48 percent drop in apple exports to Colombia last year, mainly because of competition from Chile. Pears were down 20 percent. "That should bounce back significantly," Powers said.
And South Korea is the fifth-largest export market for Northwest cherry growers, even though it has had a 24 percent tariff.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., joined critics who objected to Colombia's record with labor and human rights. Many opponents, concerned that prior trade deals have driven U.S. jobs overseas to places where workers are afforded few rights, wanted more protections for foreign workers written into the trade pacts.
In a speech to his colleagues, McDermott said members of Congress had an opportunity to back up their talk about believing in human rights.
"We talk about it all the time," he said. "We talk about it for every country in the world, but when we write a trade agreement for Colombia, we're unwilling to write in the demands for the Colombian workers. That's what's wrong with this."
Murray, who referred to herself "as a senator from the most trade-dependent state in the nation," said the agreements would give the economy "a much-needed boost." She said it would help the state's aerospace and agricultural industries.
Even though she backed the agreements, Murray said Congress needs to do more to help U.S. workers who have been hurt by international trade. And she expressed concern about Colombia's "history of violence and intimidation against labor activists in their country."
Cantwell, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which approved the trade pacts Tuesday, said the deals would increase exports from Washington by $52.8 million, citing Farm Bureau statistics. She said the state already is the nation's second-largest grower and exporter of fruit, with exports of fruits and vegetables valued at more than $1.8 billion in 2009.
"By passing this trade package, we're supporting jobs in Washington and across the nation -- from the apple farm, to the trucks that carry the apples to the port, to the shipping jobs that send the product overseas," Cantwell said.
AN END TO TARIFFS
Here are some of the highlights for agriculture under the new trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia:
-- South Korea would end its 24 percent tariff on sweet cherries. The tariff adds about 75 to
90 cents per pound for the price consumers there pay.
-- South Korea will eliminate its 45 percent tariff on all apple varieties, except for Fuji, over 10 years. The 45 percent tariff on Fuji apples will be phased out over 20 years.
-- South Korea will scrap its 45 percent tariff on European pear varieties over 10 years. The 45 percent tariff on Asian pears will be phased out over 20 years.
-- Panama will end its tariffs on apples, pears and cherries. Tariffs currently are 1 percent for cherries, 2 percent for apples and 5 percent for pears.
-- Colombia will eliminate its tariffs on apples, pears and cherries. Currently, the tariffs are 15 percent.
Source: Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima