The White House and top lawmakers have finally reached a deal to allow long-stalled trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to move ahead in Congress, officials have said.
The deal will allow a Senate panel to start work this week on the pacts, worth billions of dollars, which slash tariffs and are designed to boost exports and speed up slow US jobs growth, Capitol Hill officials said.
The White House said the breakthrough resulted from an agreement with lawmakers to fund Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which offers health care and retraining for US workers who lose jobs to overseas markets through 2014.
The White House had insisted on renewing TAA as a condition for moving forward on the deals, drawing Republican fire that it was loading down the pacts with unrelated legislation and blocking vital trade deals.
"As a result of extensive negotiations, we now have an agreement on the underlying terms for a meaningful renewal of a strengthened TAA," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
"President Obama has fought for an ambitious trade agenda that doubles exports in five years, levels the playing field for American workers, and reflects American values," he said.
Trade organizations and free trade advocates had been cranking up pressure on the White House to move on the deals before campaigning for the 2012 election further poisons the political atmosphere.
The deals may offer a boost to Obama's efforts to double US exports and create jobs in a sluggish economy with unemployment pegged at 9.1 percent, a perilous political reality for the president.
Trade groups, which have mounted a vocal campaign for action on the pacts, welcomed the breakthrough.
"With our economic recovery stalling, the time is now for Congress to act on these deals," said Thomas Donohue, president and CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce.
"For members of Congress who care about American jobs, this is a moment of truth," he said.
Mitch McConnell, who leads the Republican minority in the Senate, however, suggested the ratification of the deals remained in doubt, saying the expansion of TAA in the South Korea pact was opposed by his party.
"I would strongly urge the Administration to re-think this action, and urge them to send up all three pending trade agreements without delay and without extraneous poison pills included," he said.
But Democratic Senator Max Baucus said the TAA deal had been put together in talks which included top House of Representatives Republicans, adding his finance committee would begin to consider the deals on Thursday.
And a senior Obama administration official said on condition of anonymity that the White House was confident there was sufficient support in Congress to ratify the three deals and pass the extension of TAA.
Lori Wallach, Director of the global trade watch for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, warned though that ratifying the deals could come at a political price.
"Given that polls show most Americans oppose more... trade pacts because they are job-killers, announcing that three more such agreements are ready to move... sure will make them mad."
The Colombia trade pact, a fulcrum of US policy towards Latin America, was signed with Washington in 2006, but has languished in Congress ever since amid fierce debate among pro and -anti free traders.
In April, US President Barack Obama said the United States and Colombia had agreed a plan to boost labor rights in the Latin American nation and unblock a free trade agreement between their countries.
The International Trade Commission (ITC) estimates that the tariff cuts in the deal will boost US exports by $1.1 billion and increase US gross domestic product by $2.5 billion.
The US-South Korea deal was signed in 2007, and advocates have warned that the delay in ratifying the pact could mean a loss of market share as a similar European Union agreement with the Asian giant goes into force on July 1.
The US-South Korea deal abolishes tariffs on more than 95 percent of industrial and consumer goods within five years and is forecast to increase exports of US goods to up to $11 billion, which will support 70,000 US jobs.
The US-Panama free trade pact was signed by both countries in 2007, and has also been awaiting ratification ever since.
Over 87 percent of US exports of consumer and industrial products to Panama will become duty free immediately and remaining tariffs will be phased out over 10 years, the White House said.