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Senate Sends Trade Bills to President’s Desk

Updated: 8:56 p.m.

The Senate approved three free-trade agreements on a bipartisan vote tonight, sending the bills to President Barack Obama’s desk to become law.

The trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia — which cleared the Senate on votes of 83-15, 77-22 and 66-33, respectively — had long been stalled because Obama had insisted that Congress take up a measure to provide expanded benefits to workers displaced by such agreements. Republicans, in turn, accused the administration of dragging its feet on packages with bipartisan support — a rarity this legislative term.

The House easily cleared the Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation and sent the three trade agreements to the Senate this afternoon.

Obama said in a statement after the Senate votes that he looked forward to signing the pacts and TAA legislation, which he called “a major win for American workers and businesses.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the deals would boost a number of U.S. industries. “It isn’t just manufacturing that will benefit — America’s service and technological sectors, where we’re global leaders, will gain greater access to these foreign markets and strong assurances that the legal environment will not change to disadvantage U.S. firms,” the Kentucky Republican said in a floor statement.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who negotiated the TAA measure with House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), hailed the passage of the agreements as a boon for the domestic economy by potentially boosting exports by the billions. He also regarded it as a statement that the United States remains an international trade leader.

“These agreements demonstrate the best of American values: open markets; transparent regulation; and respect for labor rights and the environment. They set the standard by which all future trade agreements will be judged, and they put to rest any doubt that the United States will engage its global partners to establish trade rules that are both free and fair,” Baucus said in a statement before the votes.

“By approving these agreements, we also bind ourselves even more closely to three of our most important allies, and we demonstrate to countries around the world that the United States is a good and dependable partner,” he added.

The three pacts had been stuck at the White House for at least four years. The measures are expected to increase exports by about $13 billion per year and broaden markets for American companies in service sectors such as insurance and banking.

The Senate votes on the deals were held as Obama dined with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at a Virginia restaurant.

Despite broad bipartisan support in both chambers, the agreements were not without opposition. One critic, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), said on the floor today that she would not support the Colombian pact because of violence against labor activists.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin joined Collins in voting against the Colombia pact, which had the least support among the three.

“Colombia has made progress protecting human rights, but much more needs to be done,” the Illinois Democrat said in a statement. “I support trade with Colombia and hope a free trade agreement is in our future, but I cannot ignore the fact that my vote for this Colombia free trade agreement would indicate that enough has been done to stem human rights abuses in Colombia. It hasn’t.”

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