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By Deborah Tate
Washington
04 December 2007

The U.S. Senate has followed the lead of the House of Representatives and approved a free trade agreement with Peru, giving President Bush his first legislative victory on trade since Democrats took control of Congress in January. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The Senate voted 77-18 to approve the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement and sent it to President Bush for his signature.

The president, speaking at a White House news conference ahead of the vote, said the trade deal would be good for the United States.

"This agreement will level the playing field for American goods and services. It will create new opportunities for investment. It will strengthen our friendship with a fellow democracy," he said.

The pact, which the House approved last month, removes many tariffs on U.S. farm and manufactured goods and maintains Peru's duty-free access to the U.S. market. Trade between the United States and Peru totaled nearly $9 billion last year.

"More than two-thirds of farm exports to Peru, including delicious Montana beef, I might add, and wheat, would receive immediate duty-free access to Peru under the agreement. All remaining tariffs on Montana and other U.S. agriculture goods would be eliminated in 17 years," said Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Prospects for congressional passage improved after the Bush administration renegotiated the deal to include stronger labor and environmental protection provisions sought by majority Democrats.

It is a point highlighted by Senator Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican. "For the first time, future administrations will have the right to take dispute action if labor or environmental issues become a problem. So this will have enforcement mechanisms built in," he said.

But some Democrats, including Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, remain skeptical. "It is clear to me there is no interest in enforcing these labor provisions," he said.

Dorgan blamed the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement for the loss of thousands of U.S. jobs, and said the trade deal with Peru would be no different.

But the Bush administration argues free trade helps create jobs.

Now that lawmakers have acted on the trade deal with Peru, the administration hopes Congress will approve similar accords with Colombia, Panama and South Korea next year.

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