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Congress Passes Free-Trade Agreements With Colombia, Panama and South Korea

October 12, 2011 - 6:00pm

Both chambers of Congress voted late Wednesday to approve long-stalled free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

The measure with Panama passed 300-129 in the House and 77-22 in the Senate. The measure with South Korea passed 278-151 in the House and 83-15 in the Senate. The deal with Colombia garnered the most opposition but still passed 262-167 in the House and 66-33 in the Senate.

The measures had been delayed as the White House negotiated with Congress over continuing funding of the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which provides benefits for American workers who lose their jobs due to international trade agreements.

With President Barack Obama releasing the treaties to Congress earlier in the week, the White House expressed support for the trade measures on Wednesday.

"We're very pleased that today Congress is taking up three important trade agreements that will help strengthen our economy and create jobs, said White House spokesman Jay Carney. As you know, the president has strongly supported these trade agreements and, in fact, worked very hard to get the best possible trade agreement with South Korea, and we're glad to see that Congress is taking them up.

Republicans in the Florida delegation called the passage of the agreements a big win for the national economy and for the Sunshine State.

Floridas 14 deepwater seaports generate over $65 billion in economic value to the state, said Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan. As the chairman of the Panama Caucus and as the states only congressman serving on the Ways and Means Committee, Buchanan played a large role in guiding the measures through Congress. We have an opportunity to generate thousands of jobs right here in our backyard.

From his perch on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Fla., also supported the measures.

This day has been long in coming, Rivera said in a statement. The approval of the free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea will open up new markets for American companies that will help job creators hire new employees and grow their businesses. Today we not only took a positive step for our economy, we took a positive step for our foreign policy. By expanding trade avenues with friends in Latin America and Asia, we sent a message that America stands with its allies.

In an ever more globalized economy, free trade is integral to promoting economic growth. Free trade will create more American jobs and raises the standard of living in the United States and abroad.As the representative with the largest Colombian-American population of any district in the United States, I feel a special connection to the Colombia Free-Trade Agreement, Rivera added. Colombia is our best and strongest ally in Latin America and the oldest functioning democracy in the region. Their democracy has withstood terrorism and civil war and I have seen firsthand that the Colombian people are determined to be full partners in the global economy and they have shown great enthusiasm about trading with the United States."

Insisted Rivera, The Colombia Free-Trade Agreement will create jobs in the United States, especially in South Florida. It will immediately boost U.S. exports to Colombia and U.S. GDP would increase by roughly $2.5 billion and exports by more than a billion dollars. After years of delay, I am proud that Republicans and Democrats in the House of the 112th Congress came together to approve the free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

There was some opposition in the Florida delegation, including that of Democrat U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch.

"In the midst of unprecedented long-term unemployment, I cannot support trade agreements that repeat the mistakes of previous trade deals that shipped millions of American jobs overseas and exploded our national trade deficit," Deutch said in a statement. "These proposed pacts will only escalate the global race for cheap labor in nations with poor human rights records. The Colombia deal will increase the availability of cheap labor with historically poor worker protections. Likewise, the proposed agreement with South Korea ensures that the United States would be flooded with products built not in Korea, but with cheap Chinese and North Korean labor.

"The free-trade agreement with Panama also adds additional barriers to American companies seeking contracts for projects expanding the Panama Canal. Furthermore, the agreement safeguards Panama's status as a notorious offshore haven for corporations that blatantly dodge U.S. tax laws," Deutch said.

Saying he supports agreements that "reduce our devastating trade deficit and encourage job growth in our own country," the congressman added: "We should not consider new trade agreements without also addressing currency manipulation by China, which could create up to 2.5 million American jobs.

"Unfortunately, these free-trade deals do not pass that test," he concluded.

Deutch was joined by two Florida Democrats -- U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings -- in opposing the measures. The rest of the delegation supported them save for Republican U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns who voted against the Colombia measure.

The two senators representing the Sunshine State -- Democrat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio -- voted to back the measures.

First of all, Im very encouraged by the fact that we finally passed the free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, Rubio said in a statement sent out late Wednesday. Its been a long time coming. Weve been talking about it for many years. Weve been talking about it since day one here in my service in the United States Senate.

"And I think the first question people have is: 'What took you guys so long?' And that is the same question I have, Rubio continued. But were glad it passed because it has huge positive benefits for Florida, especially the free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. They will create thousands of jobs in Florida.

These are good free-trade agreements that are also fair to the American worker. They wont lead to jobs going overseas. On the contrary, it will strengthen our neighbors and their economies, but it will also strengthen ours, especially in places like Florida, said Rubio in closing. So were really excited that, finally, the free-trade agreements have passed.

Gov. Rick Scott also weighed in on the matter. Scott expressed support for the agreements since coming into office and called for their passage in previous weekly radio addresses.

Free trade with Panama and Colombia will benefit Floridas economy and businesses for years to come. By eliminating the need to pay tariffs in order to export Florida goods and products to those expanding economies, Florida companies will now be able to invest their money in creating jobs, Scott said in a statement released late on Wednesday. "Todays action makes it even more important that we continue investing in our ports and infrastructure. By doing so, Florida will get the full benefit of these expanded trade opportunities and the jobs they will create.

Reach Kevin Derby at or at (850) 727-0859. Kenric Ward contributed to this article.

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