WASHINGTON – Congress gave final approval Tuesday to a free trade agreement with Oman, ending several months of debate over a deal that will have minimal economic effects but came to stand for growing differences over U.S. trade policy.
The 63-31 Senate vote gives the go-ahead to a trade pact that would immediately end all duties on industrial and consumer products sold between the United States and the Arabian Gulf state. Oman would remove duties on 87 percent of U.S. agricultural imports and eliminate all tariffs within 10 years.
Trade between the two countries totals less than $1.2 billion annually, but the administration pushed hard on the deal, stressing both Oman's long history as a strategic ally and the administration's goal of establishing a Middle East free trade area by 2013.
Oman, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has been "a consistent ally where we need one very much, in an unstable part of the world."
U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said the Oman agreement "builds on free trade agreements concluded with Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain" and that the proposed Middle East free trade area would spur economic growth and reform in an area of almost 350 million people.
But the agreement drew fire, mainly from Democrats who said that it did too little to ensure that trade with Oman wouldn't come at the expense of worker rights and the environment. They also charged that the administration has negotiated trade deals without addressing their concerns, and that free trade deals too often result in growing trade deficits and the loss of American jobs.
"Every single incompetent trade agreement this country signs ends up dramatically increasing our federal deficits," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. "We are choking on them."
Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, a pro-trade Democrat, said "the controversy over Oman reflects more general frustration with trade agreements."
The Senate originally passed the bill implementing the agreement last June on a 60-34 vote. The House, where opposition to free trade agreements is generally stronger, narrowly approved it in July on a 221-205 vote; the measure returned to the Senate for Tuesday's procedural confirmation of its previous vote.
The office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which negotiates trade agreements, is moving ahead with numerous other bilateral deals. Talks are under way with Panama, South Africa and Thailand, and discussions have begun with South Korea and Malaysia.