WASHINGTON — Rushing toward the finishing line, Congress was poised to approve three free trade agreements Wednesday that advocates say will boost exports, give the economy a needed lift and help put Americans back to work.
The deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama are hailed as economic victories by President Barack Obama and most Republicans in Congress. For a brief moment, it appeared that the bickering sides would put aside their political differences in the interest of action that could help the struggling jobs market.
Still, many Democrats, traditionally wary of free trade, opposed the Colombia deal because of that country's poor labor record. Republicans also criticized Obama for waiting several years to send the pacts to Capitol Hill. They were signed during George W. Bush's presidency.
The House planned to vote on three bills putting the deals in place and send the measures to the Senate for three additional votes Wednesday evening.
The House also scheduled a vote on a Senate-passed bill to extend benefits under a Kennedy-era program that helps workers whose jobs are adversely affected by foreign trade.
The deal with South Korea alone is the largest since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada in 1995. The White House says together the three agreements will increase U.S. exports by $13 billion and create tens of thousands of jobs.
"Let me just say, America's back." said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich. "For far too long, America's been sitting on the sidelines and we've been losing market share."
The three agreements "will give our ranchers, farmers, workers and businesses a competitive edge in three lucrative, fast-growing markets," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. "They are what our economy needs right now."
There are passionate detractors, too. Labor and human rights groups and some Democrats say trade deals have a history of driving U.S. factories overseas to countries with poor labor rights and environmental records. Colombia has been singled out its problems with violence against labor leaders. A Senate Finance Committee meeting Tuesday to send the agreements to the full Senate was interrupted several times by protesters.
"What do you get when you exercise your rights in Colombia today?" Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., asked in a statement. "You get death threats and death squad activities against you and your family."
The deals have languished since the end of the Bush presidency, stalled first by the then-Democratic majorities in Congress and later by Obama's insistence on renegotiating parts of the pacts.
In the past year the administration has succeeded in winning concessions from South Korea to open up its markets further to U.S. vehicles and concluded an agreement to bring transparency to banking practices in Panama, known as a tax haven.
It has prodded Colombia into putting together a plan designed to protect labor rights and crack down on violence against labor leaders.
That didn't satisfy Republicans.
"There's no reason we should have had to wait nearly three years for this president to send them up to Congress for a vote, but they're a good start nonetheless," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said there had been "nothing but passive indifference" from the Obama administration.
The votes were set a little more than a week after Obama submitted the agreements to Congress. The quick turnaround reflects the importance with which House GOP leaders regard them as economic aids.
The goal was to finish the voting by Wednesday, a day before South Korean President Lee Myung-bak planned to address a joint meeting of Congress.
The United States has free trade relations with 17 nations. The last free trade agreement was completed in 2007 with Peru. It could still take several months to work out the final formalities before the current agreements go into force. The South Korean parliament is expected to sign off on its agreement this month.
The administration says the agreement with South Korea, America's seventh-largest trading partner, will increase U.S. exports by more than $10 billion and support 70,000 American jobs. It would make 95 percent of American consumer and industrial goods duty free within five years.
The agreement, the White House said in a statement, will give American businesses, farmers, workers, ranchers, manufacturers, investors and service providers "unprecedented access to Korea's nearly $1 trillion economy."
Supporters say that the Colombia deal, in addition to opening up markets that have been restricted because of high tariffs, would be a gesture of political support for President Juan Manual Santos, who has been a strong ally of the United States.