WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama signed three free trade deals opposed by many of his fellow Democrats in a low-key ceremony on Friday, capping a five-year push by Republicans to get them approved.
The pacts with South Korea, Panama and Colombia are expected to boost U.S. exports by around $13 billion annually, which the administration estimates will create or maintain about 70,000 jobs.
Obama signed the agreements in the Oval Office outside the view of television cameras, and scrubbed earlier plans to speak publicly about the pacts at a reception with business groups in the White House's Rose Garden.
"This may be the high-water mark for the president's trade policy, certainly in his first term," said Dan Griswold, director of the free-market Cato Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies.
Obama is unlikely to launch major new trade negotiations in 2012 "because it's not popular with key constituencies of his," although he could make progress in ongoing talks on a transpacific free trade agreement and efforts to bring Russia into the World Trade Organization, Griswold said.
Earlier this week, the White House said Obama would talk publicly about the agreements at a Rose Garden reception on Friday. But it later decided to keep that gathering private, despite Obama's recent emphasis on the need to create jobs to bring down stubbornly high unemployment.
The president faced fierce opposition to the South Korea, Colombia and Panama agreements from many Democrats, which prompted him to negotiate side deals with the three countries to address various concerns.
That strategy paid off when the Senate and the House of Representatives passed all three agreements last week with bipartisan support.
The vote in the Senate for the South Korea agreement, 83-15, was the highest ever received for any trade pact.
But the deals, which were negotiated during the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush, remained deeply unpopular with many House Democrats, especially those from union-heavy states where the North American Free Trade Agreement is blamed for job losses.
The pact with Korea, which only 59 of 192 House Democrats supported, is the largest U.S. trade deal since NAFTA and accounts for most of the expected growth in U.S. exports.
It immediately eliminates duties on over two-thirds of current farm exports to the long-time Asian ally and phases out South Korean duties on over 95 percent of U.S. industrial and consumer goods within five years.
It also gives American companies such as Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, FedEx, UPS and MetLife, increased access to South Korea's $580 billion services market.
Both Colombia and Panama have had duty-free access to the United States for most of their goods under long-time U.S. trade preference programs. The U.S. trade deal levels the playing field by eliminating most of the duties those countries now impose on American farm and manufacturing goods.
Manufacturers such as Boeing and Caterpillar were strong advocates of all three agreements, and U.S. wheat, corn, soybean, pork and beef producers also collectively expect billions of dollars of new sales under the accords.
House Democrats voted against the Colombia agreement 158-31 and the Panama pact 123-66. Many Democrats believe Colombia has not done enough to stop killings of trade unionists and to prosecute those responsible for the crimes.
The Obama administration negotiated a plan with Colombia to address those concerns, and has said it will not put the accord into force until Bogota has fulfilled all of its commitments under the labor plan.