WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- In an unusually speedy legislative process, both chambers of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday approved a free trade pact with Korea which will apparently help broaden the scope of the alliance.
The move is expected to give a jolt to an effort by Korea's ruling party to ratify the accord within this month over resistance from liberal opposition parties.
The Senate's 83-15 vote came on the eve of Korean President Lee Myung-bak's summit with his American counterpart Barack Obama in Washington and a speech in a joint session of the Senate and the House. Lee arrived here Tuesday for a state visit.
Hours earlier, the Republican-controlled House also passed the implementing bills on free trade agreements (FTAs) with Korea, Colombia and Panama.
Congress will soon send the bills to Obama for his signature.
Obama, who has placed a priority on job creation, called the passage "a major win for American workers and businesses."
"Tonight's vote, with bipartisan support, will significantly boost exports that bear the proud label 'Made in America,' support tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs and protect labor rights, the environment and intellectual property," he said in a statement. "American automakers, farmers, ranchers and manufacturers, including many small businesses, will be able to compete and win in new markets."
The South Korean leader also stressed the economic gains that will come from the FTA.
"If businesses in the two countries make active efforts, trade between the two countries is expected to increase by more than 50 percent by 2015 and sharply expand investment," Lee said in a speech at a meeting with American business leaders hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Last year's bilateral trade totaled US$90.2 billion.
The two sides launched free trade talks in 2006 and struck a deal a year later.
The administrations of Lee and Obama had additional negotiations on the accord, signed by their predecessors, in 2010 and reached a supplementary deal on new terms of auto trade.
Obama has openly expressed hope that South Koreans will drive more American vehicles.
The U.S. FTA with South Korea is the largest trade deal since the U.S. agreed to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s.
Lawmakers said the passage of the bills is a late yet desirable move for the U.S. economy and the alliance.
"There's no reason we should have had to wait nearly three years for this president to send them up to Congress for a vote, but they're a good start nonetheless," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the FTA with South Korea is more significant in terms of competition with the regional powerhouse China.
“China’s aggressive policies in the Pacific make our alliance with South Korea as important as ever," she said, adding the FTA demonstrates Washington's long-term commitment to defending its shared values, priorities and interests in the Pacific.
South Korean officials expect the country's parliament to follow suit in the near future so that the trade pact can go into effect as early as in January.
Experts hailed the U.S. passage of the FTAs as a rare bipartisan achievement and one of the major accomplishments of Lee's visit.
"In terms of the economic agenda per se, I think the free trade agreement was the main accomplishment, as it was clearly accelerated to try to get it through both houses of Congress before the president's visit," Edward Alden, a researcher at Council on Foreign Relations said. "This was one potential deadline."
Richard Bush, senior analyst at the Brookings Institution, said it may be also Obama's biggest achievement in the remainder of his current term.
"Given how few political agreements are possible in Washington these days, this may be the biggest achievement in the last two years of President Obama's current term, particularly if there is stalemate in the budget negotiations," he said. (Yonhap)