America's first free trade agreements with countries in Asia and South America won crucial backing Thursday from committees in both the House and Senate, raising expectations that both deals can clear the US Congress before the end of this month.
The trade agreements with Chile and Singapore won endorsement by voice vote in both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee after a review of draft legislation needed to implement the deals.
US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said the administration would submit the legislation next week and the leaders of both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee indicated their panels would soon clear the proposals for floor debate in both chambers.
The agreements would add Chile and Singapore to a select group of four nations -- Canada, Mexico, Israel and Jordan -- that currently have free trade arrangements with the US.
The administration hopes the Chile and Singapore deals will be just the first of a wave of free trade agreements stretching around the world.
The administration is already pursuing free trade deals with Australia, Bahrain, five nations in Central America, five nations in southern Africa as well as the biggest prize of all -- a Free Trade Area of the Americas that would cover 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere.
While the legislative battle over enacting a free trade pact with Mexico a decade ago was bruising, there is expected to be far less opposition to the free trade deals with Chile and Singapore, in large part because trade flows are much smaller.
Singapore ranked 16th with US$14.8 billion in products shipped to the US last year while US imports from Chile were even smaller at US$3.8 billion, ranking it 36th.
By contrast, Mexico shipped US$134.7 billion in products to the US last year, ranking it No. 2 behind Canada, the country's biggest trading partner.
Several Democrats told Zoellick during the House hearing that they were willing to accept the language dealing with enforcement of labor rights in the Chile and Singapore deals because both of those countries had acceptable track records.
Other nations in line for free trade agreements did not, they said.
"I strongly disagree with the administration's policy to follow the Chile-Singapore model in negotiating the Central American Free Trade Agreement," Representative Charles Rangel of New York told Zoellick.