WASHINGTON — Long-stalled free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea cleared a hurdle in Congress on Wednesday as the House Ways & Means Committee approved all three, setting the stage for a vote by the full House.
The South Korea pact, the largest of the trio in terms of two-way trade, passed on a 31 to 5 vote, while Panama was approved on a vote of 32 to 3.
The committee approved the Colombia trade agreement primarily on a party line vote of 24 to 12, with many Democrats recording their opposition over labor rights violations and the deaths of union activists in that country.
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) has pledged to move the trade bills in tandem with a fourth, Senate-passed bill that would renew the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which helps workers who lose their jobs due to foreign trade through extended government benefits and job training, and also renew the Generalized System of Preferences, which provides duty free benefits for about 4,800 products from 131 designated countries, through 2013.
The Obama administration, which formally submitted the three trade agreements to Congress on Monday, made renewal of the TAA program a condition for moving on the three trade agreements. The House has not yet approved the TAA program.
Congress has 90 days to consider the trade deals and vote on them. All three pacts were negotiated under trade promotion authority over four years ago by President Bush. The accords with South Korea, Colombia and Panama represent a combined total of $1.1 billion in textile and apparel trade.
“We do think there is more opportunity to expand trade in the three agreements,” said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel. “We are very supportive of the trade deals, but we are disappointed that all of the agreements were based on a yarn forward rule of origin,” which precludes third-party inputs being used, and do not include cumulation, which would link benefits among other countries involved in bilateral or regional trade agreements with the U.S.
The textile industry and its allies on Capitol Hill have vowed to oppose the deal with South Korea, arguing that it could send a flood of textile imports to the U.S.