WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday urged President Barack Obama to send free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea to Congress for a vote, without first insisting on renewal of a retraining program for workers displaced by trade.
"We need to separate these issues, deal with them independently and move ahead with these trade deals," McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor.
McConnell criticized the Obama administration for refusing to send the trade deals to Congress until Republicans agree to a deal to renew the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program at or near 2009 levels.
The program, which costs around $1 billion a year, provides funding for retraining and healthcare benefits for workers who have lost their jobs because of imports or their workplace relocating overseas.
Many Republicans argue the program is a waste of taxpayers' money as Congress looks for ways to cut the huge U.S. budget deficit. They also say it is unfair that workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition get more generous unemployment benefits than most other workers.
Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, accused the White House of professing to support the trade agreements while coming up with one excuse after another not to send them to Congress for a vote.
"This schizophrenic trade policy is doing nothing but hurting American workers and undermining our recovery," Hatch said, adding he believed each pact would pass with bipartisan support if Obama submitted them.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by John O'Callaghan)