In a long-awaited move, U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday (local time) sent free trade agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress, pressing lawmakers to pass them promptly.
Obama's action raises hopes that the ratification process will be completed before South Korean President Lee Myung-bak makes a visit to the States next week.
"The series of trade agreements I am submitting to Congress today will make it easier for American companies to sell their products in South Korea, Colombia, and Panama and provide a major boost to our exports," Obama said in a statement.
Obama, who expressed skepticism about free trade as a candidate, stressed that the FTAs, if passed, will help create jobs, his priority ahead of the presidential elections in 2012.
"These agreements will support tens of thousands of jobs across the country for workers making products stamped with three proud words: Made in America," he said. "We've worked hard to strengthen these agreements to get the best possible deal for American workers and businesses, and I call on Congress to pass them without delay, along with the bipartisan agreement on Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) that will help workers whose jobs have been affected by global competition."
The political dispute over the TAA, aimed at helping workers harmed by foreign trade, was a potential deal breaker, with Republican members of Congress opposing the renewal of the $US1-billion-a-year program.
Obama's submission of the FTAs to Congress, however, suggested that the White House and the Republican Party have a political deal in place. Obama has been apparently assured that the TAA will be extended in concert with the passage of the FTAs.
Specifically on the FTA with South Korea, Obama said his administration, "in close coordination with the Congress, successfully negotiated to provide additional market access and a level playing field for American auto manufacturers and workers exporting to Korea."
Republican House Speaker John Boehner welcomed Obama's submission of the FTAs and promised a speedy process.
"They will be a top priority for the House," he said in a statement. He added the accords will be handled in tandem with the TAA.
The House is expected to approve the FTAs next week, followed by a vote by the Senate.
South Korean officials said there will be no hurdle to the ratification of the trade bills, saying it is merely a matter of time. Congress must vote yes or no within 90 days under the "fast-track" Trade Promotion Authority.
"Before an FTA is submitted, the Democratic and Republican parties iron out differences and (the White House) checks a vote count necessary for ratification," the South Korean Embassy in Washington said in a press release. "So far, an FTA implementing bill has never been voted down."
But embassy officials were cautious about whether Congress will approve the FTAs before their president holds summit talks with Obama in Washington next Thursday.
"The ratification process is associated more with domestic politics," an official said, requesting anonymity.
If the bills are ratified before Lee's visit, he added, the president is likely to deliver a speech to Congress.
A senior U.S. government official also said last week that the Obama administration was pressing hard to get the FTAs handled quickly, which would add to the success of Lee's trip.
The Lee administration has openly said the strengthened alliance with the U.S. is one of its major diplomatic accomplishments.
South Korea and the U.S. signed the bilateral FTA in 2007 and struck supplementary deals, mainly on auto trade, last year.
The long-pending trade pact is one of the most contentious issues in South Korea's National Assembly. It was presented to the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and trade last month amid objections from opposition lawmakers.
The ruling Grand National Party (GNP) is calling for a speedy ratification, while the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) claims the deal favors the U.S. and should be renegotiated.
The floor leader of GNP, Hwang Woo-yea, reiterated his earlier position to keep pace with the U.S. Congress in handling the bill.
"If the U.S. Congress passes the ratification bill, we have to handle the pact at a similar time," Hwang told Yonhap by phone. "As the annual parliamentary audit is under progress, (the party) will review the general situation and try to negotiate with opposition parties."
If it is going to be put to a vote in a plenary session later this month, the FTA must first pass through the foreign affairs and trade committee.
Rep. Nam Kyung-pil, who chairs the committee, said the GNP will accept "all reasonable demands" from opposition parties, except calls for renegotiation with the U.S.
"We will try to handle the bill without physical clashes," Nam stressed.
In a Cabinet meeting earlier Tuesday, Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik urged senior government officials to prepare safeguard measures to protect local industries and raise public awareness of possible benefits of the trade deal.