WASHINGTON — Ending a long stalemate, Congress was expected to pass three new trade agreements Wednesday evening, signing off on deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama in an attempt to increase U.S. exports and create more jobs.
Among the potential winners: U.S. agricultural producers who grow cherries, potatoes and apples, big crops in Washington state and the Pacific Northwest. Farmers expect sales to rise substantially when tariffs are lifted.
"There is no question that these agreements will increase jobs," Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state said in a speech on the House floor.
The pacts represent the nation's biggest trade deals since passage of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
President Barack Obama, who had lobbied hard for the agreements, said the South Korean trade pact — the largest of the three — would create 70,000 new jobs in the United States.
Members of Congress were rushing to wrap up the deals before South Korean President Lee Myung-bak planned to go to the White House as part of an official state visit Thursday.
Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the agreement with South Korea would benefit Washington state potato growers and processors by immediately ending an 18 percent tariff they must pay when exporting their products.
Calling the trade agreements "critical to my constituents," Hastings predicted that apple growers would see a surge in their sales, as well.
"As our economy is struggling to recover, I encourage all of my colleagues to act now to support all of these three trade agreements — because all of these three agreements will expand an opportunity for our economy to grow, especially the agricultural and diverse agriculture economy I have in central Washington," Hastings said.
While the pacts divided many Democrats across the nation, they united most members of Congress from Washington State, where one of every three jobs is linked to international trade.
"If we're going to grow, we need access to other markets," said Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, noting that 95 percent of the world's population lives outside of the United States.
Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington state joined critics who objected to Colombia's record with labor and human rights. Many opponents, concerned that prior trade deals have driven U.S. jobs overseas to places where workers are afforded few rights, wanted more protections for foreign workers written into the trade pacts.
In a speech to his colleagues, McDermott said that members of Congress had an opportunity to back up their talk about believing in human rights.
"We talk about it all the time," he said. "We talk about it for every country in the world, but when we write a trade agreement for Colombia, we're unwilling to write in the demands for the Colombian workers. That's what's wrong with this."
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who referred to herself "as a senator from the most trade-dependent state in the nation," said the agreements would give the economy "a much-needed boost." She said it would help the state's aerospace and agricultural industries.
Even though she backed the agreements, Murray said Congress needs to do more to help U.S. workers who have been hurt by international trade. And she expressed concern about Colombia's "history of violence and intimidation against labor activists in their country."
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which approved the trade pacts Tuesday, said the three trade deals would increase exports from Washington State by $52.8 million, citing Farm Bureau statistics. She said the state already is the nation's second-largest grower and exporter of fruit, with exports of fruits and vegetables valued at more than $1.8 billion in 2009.
"By passing this trade package, we're supporting jobs in Washington and across the nation — from the apple farm, to the trucks that carry the apples to the port, to the shipping jobs that send the product overseas," Cantwell said.
AN END TO TARIFFS:
Here are some of the highlights for agriculture under the new trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia:
South Korea would end its 24 percent tariff on sweet cherries. The tariff adds about 75 to 90 cents per pound for the price consumers there pay.
South Korea will eliminate its 45 percent tariff on all apple varieties, except for Fuji, over 10 years. The 45 percent tariff on Fuji apples will be phased out over 20 years.
South Korea will scrap its 45 percent tariff on European pear varieties over 10 years. The 45 percent tariff on Asian pears will be phased out over 20 years.
Panama will end its tariffs on apples, pears and cherries. Tariffs currently are 1 percent for cherries, 2 percent for apples and 5 percent for pears.
Colombia will eliminate its tariffs on apples, pears and cherries. Currently, the tariffs are 15 percent.
( Source: Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY