WASHINGTON – The Senate was set to vote Wednesday to effectively eliminate trade barriers with Morocco (search), one of America's oldest trading partners and closest allies in the Arab world.
The Senate action, expected to be followed by the House on Thursday, would make Morocco only the eighth country in the world with a free trade (search) relationship with the United States. The only other Arab nation is Jordan, a free trade partner since 2001.
Both the House and the Senate are expected to agree to the free trade pact, signed by the two countries in June, by large margins. Trade between the two countries is small, less than $1 billion a year, and Morocco has earned high marks for implementing strong labor standards.
Poor labor and environmental standards are often cited by critics of free trade agreements, who argue that American jobs are lost when the United State opens its markets to countries where workers are exploited.
The votes on Morocco come just a week after Congress approved Australia (search) as the seventh free trade country. The others are Canada, Mexico, Israel, Chile and Singapore.
As with Australia, the biggest controversy was over patent protection language that some lawmakers charged could be used to deny consumers access to cheap pharmaceuticals.
In the case of Morocco, the issue was whether Moroccans would be able to obtain generic drugs to deal with health emergencies.
The office of the United States Trade Representative, which negotiated the agreement, issued a statement affirming that global trade rules allow countries to issue "compulsory licenses" to produce and import drugs needed to fight epidemics and deal with public health crises.
Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill., head of the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, noted that Morocco has long been a key ally, with trade and political relations going back to the Revolutionary War era.
The two countries last year had two-way trade of about $860 million, with the United States enjoying a $66 million surplus on exports of such items as aircraft, corn and machinery.
Currently, U.S. products face an average tariff entering Morocco of more than 20 percent, while Moroccan products are levied with an average 4 percent tariff in this country. The agreement is expected to double trade between the two countries.
The agreement also has protections for digital copyrights and trademarks, expands protection for patents and contains tough penalties for piracy and counterfeiting.