By JIM ABRAMS, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - House and Senate committees gave strong backing to a trade agreement with Morocco on Tuesday, setting the stage for the north African country to become the United States' eighth free-trade partner.
The full Senate is scheduled to vote on the measure Wednesday, and the House on Thursday, with both chambers expected to endorse the measure by wide margins to send it to the president for his signature.
Action on Morocco comes less than a week after Congress approved a free-trade pact with Australia and would signify a rare double victory for free traders in an election year, when lawmakers are sensitive to charges that lowering trade barriers leads to the loss of American jobs.
On Tuesday, both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee approved the legislation to implement the agreement by unanimous votes.
Behind the overwhelming support was Morocco's role as a crucial political ally among Arab countries and general agreement among lawmakers that the country has made progress in worker rights. That's an important issue for members of Congress leery of trade deals with countries where child labor abuses or suppression of worker rights is prevalent.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the Morocco agreement was "the best market access the United States has ever obtained on consumer and manufacturing products in a trade agreement with a developing country." Under the deal, some 95 percent of consumer and industrial products will become duty-free immediately.
As with the Australian deal, the biggest debate was over whether a provision that protects exclusive sales rights of patent holders could affect access to cheaper pharmaceuticals. With Australia, critics warned that it could hinder future legislation to make reimported drugs legal, while with Morocco the issue was whether it could impede Morocco from obtaining cheap generic drugs.
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., top Democrat on the Ways and Means trade subcommittee, said he worried that barring the import of drugs not approved by the patent holder "could restrict access of Moroccan citizens to medicines needed for their health in urgent situations."
The office of the U.S. Trade Representative said in a statement that global trade rules allow countries facing health emergencies to issue "compulsory licenses" to produce or import drugs. It said the Morocco agreement would not affect that country's ability to do whatever is necessary to protect public health.
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.
Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, top Democrat on the Finance Committee, said the agreement also has "state-of-the-art protections" for digital copyrights and trademarks, expands protection for patents and contains tough penalties for piracy and counterfeiting.
The United States also has bilateral free-trade agreements with Israel, Canada, Mexico, Jordan, Chile and Singapore.
On the Net:
USTR Morocco page: http://www.ustr.gov/new/fta/morocco.htm