By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama Friday urged Republicans to pave the way for quick approval of trade deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama by cooperating with the White House to extend a program to help workers who have lost their job because of trade.
"I've got three trade deals, sitting ready to go. These are all trade deals that Republicans told me were their top priorities. They told me this would be one of the best job creators we could have," Obama said at a news conference
"And yet it's still being held up because some folks don't want to provide Trade Adjustment Assistance to people who may be displaced as a consequence of trade. Surely we can come up with a compromise to solve those problems," he said.
Trade Adjustment Assistance is a nearly 50-year-old program that provides retraining and income assistance to help workers who have lost their jobs because of foreign competition.
Congress has modified the program over the years, most recently in 2009 when it was expanded to cover additional workers and provide more generous healthcare assistance.
The new benefits expired early this year when many newly elected Tea Party conservatives objected to the approximately $1 billion annual cost of the expanded program.
Obama administration officials warned Republicans in May the White House would not send the trade deals to Congress for a vote until there was deal to renew the expired TAA benefits.
The administration and key lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives struck a bipartisan compromise on a slimmed-down version of the 2009 TAA reforms, but no deal was reached on how Congress would consider the legislation.
Democrats fear Republicans will block a vote on the program and so have insisted that Obama put the TAA package into the implementing legislation for the South Korea agreement, where it would be protected against any amendments.
However, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and some other party members have threatened to vote against the Korea trade deal if it includes TAA.
White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley told the U.S.-Korea Business Council Thursday evening that Republicans had not offered any "credible" plan for ensuring consideration of the three trade deals and TAA.
"We can no longer wait. If there's no agreement on an alternative approach in the very near future, we will move forward to seek passage of the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) with TAA" included, Daley said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer, Jeff Mason and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Eric Walsh)