Obama Sends Trade Agreements To Congress

President Obama has sent to Congress long-delayed trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. The deals are hailed as a boon to job creation, but also feared as a threat to existing jobs.

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LYNN NEARY, Host:

Three long-delayed trade agreements are finally set for a vote in Congress. President Obama formally submitted the trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama yesterday. The move came after House Republicans agreed to vote on a separate measure designed to protect American workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition. NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama says passage of the trade deals would help support tens of thousands of jobs in the U.S. In an interview with ABC yesterday, Mr. Obama said the deals would make it easier for Americans to export their products to customers overseas.

BARACK OBAMA: All these countries right now are able to sell into the United States. We have one of the most open markets in the world. Theirs are still a little too closed. And as I've said before, I don't mind Kias and Hyundai's sold here, as long as Chryslers and Fords are being sold in Korea as well.

HORSLEY: Both the White House and Republicans in Congress have said they want the trade deals passed. But political squabbling has kept them bottled up for months. In the meantime, Europe enacted its own agreement with South Korea and Canada inked a deal with Colombia, putting U.S. firms at a competitive disadvantage in those countries. Vice President John Murphy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says passing the trade deals now would help Americans to catch up.

JOHN MURPHY: It will mean that American exporters are back in the game. Whether it's Montana farmers growing wheat, selling to Colombia, or Ohio manufacturers who are competing against goods from Europe sold in the Korean market, we expect that they'll be able to see their exports grow.

HORSLEY: The Administration forecasts the three deals will boost exports by some $13 billion a year. But many Americans have grown skeptical of such claims. Thea Lee of the AFL-CIO says union members will be out in force on Capitol Hill today, urging members of Congress to oppose the deals.

THEA LEE: Unfortunately, our experience with these trade agreements is they don't tend to create net new jobs in the United States. Certainly not net good new jobs.

HORSLEY: U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk says the Administration is sensitive to those concerns. That's why the White House insisted on renegotiating the trade deals, originally worked out by the Bush Administration and why it's filed complaints alleging unfair trading practices against other trading partners, such as China.

RON KIRK: We knew we needed a new approach. We have not only focused on getting agreements that were more balanced, but we've also paid equal attention to enforcing our current agreements to making sure we had the level playing field that even our most ardent trade supporters have argued for.

HORSLEY: The Administration also insisted it would not go forward with the trade agreements unless Congress also renewed Trade Adjustment Assistance - a program designed to help workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition.

That's been a major sticking point, since some Republicans oppose that program as unnecessary welfare. Kirk says the logjam began to break when the Senate OK'd trade adjustment assistance by a wide margin last month. Assurance that the House would also take up the measure alongside the three trade deals was the key to moving forward.

KIRK: We are in one of the rare opportunities in Washington where we are working in a strong, bipartisan consensus and with some degree of good faith in one another. And we are just hopeful that the Speaker can live up to his commitment to have all four of the agreements on the president's desk before the end of October.

HORSLEY: John Murphy of the Chamber of Commerce says one good thing about the long delay is that Congress has had plenty of time to study the issue. And he says it's all over now but the voting.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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