Senate approves Oman trade deal, sends to Bush

Reuters | Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Senate approves Oman trade deal, sends to Bush

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The U.S. Senate gave final congressional approval on Tuesday to a free trade agreement with the Gulf Arab state of Oman, sending the bill to President George W. Bush to sign into law.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said the agreement would help the United States "advance our goal of a freer and more open Middle East."

He praised Oman as a longtime friend of the United States and a committed ally "in the global war on terror."

The Senate voted 63-31 to approve the trade deal, which will immediately eliminate duties on consumer and industrial goods traded between the United States and Oman on the first day the pact takes effect.

The deal also opens the Omani market to more U.S. business in service sectors like banking and telecommunications.

Two-way agricultural trade will be nearly duty free from the first day and completely duty free within 10 years.

It is the fifth U.S. free trade agreement in the Middle East and the fourth with an Arab country following recent pacts with Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain. The United States’ oldest free trade partner in the region is Israel.

The Bush administration has set a goal of creating a regional free trade area in the Middle East by 2013.

The U.S. House of Representatives narrowly approved the Oman agreement in July by a 221-205 vote. Most Democrats opposed the pact on the grounds that its labor provisions weren’t strong enough. Many lawmakers also said they were worried the agreement could weaken U.S. port security.

The Senate voted 60-34 in June in favor of the pact, but had to vote again on Tuesday because the U.S. Constitution requires the House to vote first on any legislation affecting government revenue, like tariffs.

In practice, it’s not unusual for the Senate to vote first on trade bills and simply approve them again on an unrecorded voice vote once the House passes the measure. But Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who is an ardent opponent of trade agreements, insisted on another recorded vote for Oman.

Dorgan said during floor debate trade agreements were to blame for the massive U.S. trade deficit, which is expected to exceed $800 billion this year. He also argued the Omani pact raised security concerns by potentially allowing an Omani company to acquire control of U.S. ports.

"This alone should defeat this trade agreement," Dorgan said.

The Bush administration says the Oman agreement and other free trade pacts it has negotiated contain provisions allowing the United States to block any business deal that it believes is a threat to national security.

Free trade talks with another Gulf Arab country, the United Arab Emirates, stalled earlier this year when U.S. lawmakers forced stated-owned Dubai Ports World to abandon plans to purchase control of certain U.S. port operations.

U.S. trade officials say they held talks with the UAE in July and still hope to conclude a pact.

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source: Washington Post