WASHINGTON – A dozen Senate Republicans say they have cleared the way for legislation to help workers displaced by foreign competition, possibly removing the main obstacle to approval of free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia.
The Obama administration supports the trade deals, but says they must be linked to extension of expired sections of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. The GOP senators, in a letter to President Barack Obama, said they can assure passage of the worker aid bill by joining Democrats in moving it past any filibuster hurdles.
Their support, while welcomed by the administration, may be too late for Congress to act on the aid and trade bills this summer. Congress is scheduled to leave for its summer recess on Aug. 6, and is likely to be preoccupied until then in resolving the crisis over raising the government's debt limit to avoid a first-ever U.S. default.
Administration officials said earlier this week that the Obama administration might delay sending final legislation on the three trade deals until September.
Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Friday that their Republican group would provide more than enough votes to ensure Senate passage of a stand-alone, compromise version of the worker assistance bill. Blunt said he had been working with his House and Senate colleagues for five years to find a way to advance the three trade agreements. "Today we have that path forward," he said.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who as chair of the Senate Finance Committee is in charge of trade issues, said in response that "there has never been a question that TAA would have to pass in tandem with the free trade agreements and we are open to any serious path that achieves that outcome." He said the trade deals will "provide a major boost to our economy, but we need to make sure U.S. workers have all the resources to succeed in a global economy, and TAA is the way to do that."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which like other business groups has been pressing Congress and the White House to act on the trade deals, praised the 12 Republicans for working to end the impasse. "With our economic recovery stalling, we need to move now on these job-creating trade agreements," said the Chamber's president and CEO, Thomas J. Donohue.
The Obama administration is behind the trade deals, which have been pending since the George W. Bush administration, but has said that Congress must at the same time act to extend expired sections of the four-decade-old program to assist workers hurt by foreign competition with financial and retraining aid.
House and Senate Republicans critical of the expense of the assistance program have said that legislation to extend it must be separate from votes on the trade bills.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday he was committed to working with Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., "to ensure a fair floor process for my members so they have an opportunity to try to amend a stand-alone Trade Adjustment Assistance bill separate from the three free trade agreements. That way, if the administration can generate the votes it needs, the TAA bill will pass on its merits."
McConnell acknowledged that he didn't expect this to happen before the August recess.
In the House, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade, said in a statement that he applauded the Senate Republicans for their approach to the worker aid bill and the trade deals. He repeated his promise to have his committee vote on both on the same day if the administration submits the trade agreements separately from the TAA bill.
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