By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - White House and congressional negotiators appear "within striking distance" of a deal on a retraining program that has held up votes on trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, the Chamber of Commerce said on Wednesday.
Tom Donohue, president of the business group, said it was ready to spend generously on lobbying and advertising to win approval of the three long-delayed agreements.
Meanwhile, a pair of Democratic senators warned that President Barack Obama's decision to pursue the trade deals could hurt party members running for re-election next year.
"I think the president is wrong on this," Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat with a long history of opposing free trade pacts, told reporters. "This is a continuation of Bush trade policies, slightly changed."
"It's a major disagreement," said Senator Robert Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat. "I think it's road we shouldn't take."
The trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama were signed during the administration of former President George W. Bush, a Republican, but he was unable to win approval from a Congress run by Democrats before leaving office in January 2009.
After Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in November, Obama stepped up efforts to resolve problems blocking each of the agreements in hopes of building bipartisan support in Congress.
Last month, the White House upped the ante by telling Republicans it would not send the pacts to Congress for a vote without a deal to renew a 2009 expansion of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) to help retrain workers displaced by trade.
The expanded benefits expired this year and many Republicans object to continuing TAA at the 2009 level when Congress is under pressure to cut the huge U.S. budget deficit. The expanded program costs about $1 billion a year.
Brown and Casey said it was important Congress be allowed to vote on a stand-alone TAA bill, rather than one embedded in the implementing legislation for one or more of the three trade agreements.
They also called for a five-year renewal of TAA with the reforms approved in 2009 to expand the program to more manufacturing, service industry and public sector workers and to provide a more generous healthcare benefit.
Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the Trade Representative's office, offered no details of the negotiation but said the administration was hopeful of "an agreement on TAA in the near future so that these agreements are not delayed."
John Murphy, a vice president at the Chamber of Commerce, said negotiators appear to be close to a "fiscally responsible" deal consistent with the 2009 reforms.
"We believe the gap between them is bridgeable," Murphy told reporters at a news conference with Donohue to discuss the group's strategy for winning approval of the free trade deals.
With union groups rolling out ads against them, Donohue was asked how much the Chamber of Commerce was prepared to spend.
"I don't know how much money we're spending. How much it takes," Donohue said, adding the group has already been lobbying for years on the deals.
With prospects for action on the agreements looking more certain, the AFL-CIO labor group is planning its own news conference on Thursday to highlight its opposition.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer, Editing by John O'Callaghan and David Lawder)