By Mark Drajem
Friday, November 9, 2007
The House of Representatives approved a free-trade agreement with Peru yesterday, the first such accord passed by Congress since Democrats won control last year.
In a 285 to 132 vote, the House approved the deal to eliminate tariffs and set rules of investment between the two countries. The measure, which came to a vote only after Democrats got the Bush administration to toughen labor and environment provisions, now goes to the Senate, which is likely to approve it.
"We have to be concerned about the impact of trade, but we cannot turn our backs on it," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) said before the vote. The Peru agreement "is a marked difference from where we've been before. If you are ever to vote for any trade agreement, this would be the easiest one to do."
Critics of the agreement said the opposition of many Democrats to the Peru accord, the least controversial of four free-trade pacts pending before Congress, makes it less likely that the other three, with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, will be approved.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) forced the administration to renegotiate provisions in the accord, requiring Peru to amend the pact and rework its regulations for workers.
Still, Pelosi and Rangel were not able to persuade a majority of their fellow Democrats to support the agreement, as they voted 109 to 116 against it. Accords with Bahrain, Australia and Morocco all garnered more Democratic votes.
"The powerful opposition within the majority party makes clear that this deal was not a good deal for workers and should never have been put forward," Teamsters President James Hoffa said. "I hope that the Democratic leadership tells the Bush administration that Congress will now focus on job-creating trade policies and no more of these job-killing agreements."
Trade between the United States and Peru, which totaled $8.8 billion last year, will grow by $1.5 billion once the accord is implemented, as Peru ships more asparagus and apparel and American producers export more meat and grain, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.
The administration and lobbyists from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Foreign Trade Council and other pro-trade groups lobbied to try to secure an overwhelming vote total, clearing the way for consideration of the other pending deals.
"If you look where this Congress started out" after Democrats took power last year, "this vote is historic," said Nicole Venable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's top trade lobbyist. "We've got a success under our belt, and we need to build on that momentum."
But each of the other pending accords has its "individual hang-ups," said Peter Hakim, president of the independent Inter-American Dialogue, based in Washington.
Panama elected as president of its national assembly a man the U.S. accuses of murdering two American soldiers, which drew objections from both the State Department and lawmakers. South Korea hasn't fully opened its market to American beef, which Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus says is a prerequisite for considering that accord. Violence against labor leaders in Colombia has led the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor organization, and Democratic leaders to oppose that agreement.
Although the AFL-CIO didn't oppose the Peru accord, it vows to get accords with Colombia or Korea voted down.
"The Peru template is far from perfect, and more work needs to be done to address other important concerns," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said.