By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Rob Portman on Wednesday urged President Barack Obama to quickly send three long-delayed free-trade pacts to Congress for approval, rather than wait until after the August congressional recess.
Portman, a former U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush, also said 12 Republican senators have agreed to support an extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance, a worker retraining program that Obama has insisted be approved along with the pacts.
That, combined with the 53 votes in the Democratic caucus, would be enough to ensure that Republican opponents of Trade Adjustment Assistance in the Senate can not block it, he said.
"Mr. President, please tear down these walls. Send these agreements forward," Portman said, echoing late President Ronald Reagan's call for the Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
"If we don't (pass the agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama) now, my fear is that over the August break there will be additional pressure from those who oppose the agreements," said Portman, an Ohio Republican.
The administration has hoped to win approval of the three trade deals before the August recess but with each passing day that looks increasingly doubtful, due in large part to intense negotiations on a deal to raise the U.S. debt ceiling by August 2 that is occupying both the White House and Congress.
While Portman may have enough votes to overcome an initial procedural effort to kill Trade Adjustment Assistance, Democratic sources said a Senate leadership deal is needed to give the White House confidence the program will survive a prolonged Senate debate.
Trade Adjustment Assistance, known as TAA, is a nearly 50-year-old retraining and income assistance program to help workers who have lost their jobs due to foreign competition.
Republicans have objected to a White House plan to include an extension of the TAA program in the implementing legislation for the South Korea trade deal and have demanded a separate vote on the legislation. But Democrats fear the program will be killed if not shielded by the South Korea pact.
Democrats view TAA as a vital part of the U.S. social safety net. Many Republicans question the program's cost and effectiveness. The White House has negotiated a bipartisan deal to reform TAA but it has not reached a deal with Republicans on how Congress will consider the package.
Early on Wednesday, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said he hoped a deal would be struck soon with Senate leaders on a path to consider both TAA and the pacts.
"I am still confident we are going to get these agreements passed and we're going to get them passed sooner rather than later," Kirk said.
But a business lobbyist, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said his organization was told on Tuesday that the administration would not submit the agreements until September. Kirk's office has not confirmed that.
A Senate Democratic aide, also speaking on condition he not be identified, said the only way the pacts could be passed quickly was if Republicans agreed to let TAA remain in the legislation to implement the Korea pact.
Given the tight floor schedule, the demand for a separate vote on TAA makes it impractical the pacts could be passed before September, he said.
Still, Republican Representative Kevin Brady, who chairs a key trade subcommittee in the House of Representatives, urged the administration and Senate leaders to reach an agreement allowing the pacts to be approved in coming weeks.
"If the White House is considering not sending them, I hope they'll reconsider," Brady said.
The United States risks losing sales to competitors in Europe and Canada, which have negotiated their own agreements with the countries, Brady said.
The South Korean parliament also needs to pass the U.S.-Korea agreement for it to go into force. South Korea's ruling Grand National Party chief repeated a pledge to see the deal ratified in August.
South Korea's opposition Democratic Party has issued 10 points it wants revised, including a delay in the opening of the beef market, before it can agree on ratifying the deal.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul; Editing by Eric Beech and Bill Trott)