Congress approved Morocco as the United States' latest free-trade partner yesterday, completing its second trade agreement in just two weeks.
The House voted 323 to 99 to make Morocco the eighth nation with which the United States has a free-trade agreement. Morocco has had only modest economic relations but long-standing political ties with the United States. The Senate endorsed the Morocco deal Wednesday on an 85 to 13 vote.
Last week Congress passed legislation making Australia the seventh free-trade partner. The others are Israel, Canada, Mexico, Jordan, Chile and Singapore.
The White House praised the agreement as "a significant opportunity to encourage economic reform and development in a moderate Muslim nation."
Under the Morocco agreement, more than 95 percent of consumer and industrial products will become duty-free immediately, and other tariffs will end within nine years.
"This free-trade agreement with Morocco, our first with an African country and our second with an Arab country, signals our commitment to deepening America's relationship with the Middle East and North Africa," U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick said in a statement. He said it was a major step in advancing President Bush's plans for a Middle East free-trade area.
The next step could be more difficult, with strong resistance in Congress to a recent free-trade agreement with six Central American countries. At issue is whether those countries have the labor and environmental standards needed to maintain fair trade relationships.
One controversy in both the Australia and Morocco deals was inclusion of patent-protection language that critics said was inserted at the urging of the pharmaceutical industry and could impede consumer access to cheap drugs.
In Morocco's case, the issue was whether its citizens would be able to obtain generic drugs for health emergencies.
The office of the trade representative issued a statement affirming that global trade rules allow countries to issue "compulsory licenses" to produce and import drugs needed to fight epidemics and deal with public health crises.
Opposition to the Moroccan deal was led by Democrats whose states have been hit hard by foreign competition. "These trade agreements aren't translating into more jobs, and people at home know that," said Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
The two countries last year had two-way trade of about $860 million, with the United States enjoying a $66 million surplus on exports of such items as aircraft, corn and machinery. The agreement is expected to double trade between the two countries.