Three free trade agreements that have spent years in political limbo could finally be on a path toward congressional action with a Senate vote Thursday to assure that American workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition can get retraining and aid.
As part of a plan carefully orchestrated with the White House, the Senate voted 70-27 to renew expired portions of Trade Adjustment Assistance, a Kennedy-era program that helps those adversely affected by trade with financial support while they learn new job skills.
While the logistics have yet to be worked out, that sets up the White House formally submitting the trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress for a final vote. House Speaker John Boehner has pledged that he will take up the TAA worker aid bill in tandem with the three trade treaties.
Boehner, in a statement, said that if Obama submits the trade agreements promptly, "I'm confident that all four bills can be signed into law by mid-October."
The bill, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., both "addresses our countries most urgent priority, jobs," and will "clear the path to consider and approve our free-trade agreements" with the three countries.
All three deals were signed during the George W. Bush presidency, but the Obama administration sought changes, including winning more access to the South Korean market for U.S. automakers and determining that Colombia was doing more to assure worker rights and end violence against labor organizers.
More recently, with jobs dominating the political landscape, Obama and Democrats have insisted that the worker aid program be extended as a condition for taking up the free trade pacts. While many Republicans are critical of the TAA program, some agreed to go along so that the trade agreements can finally be completed.
"Both parties in the Senate have acted in good faith to move this process forward," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "Now it's the president's turn."
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said they were discussing how to move the trade bills through Congress, adding, "the trade agreements, along with Trade Adjustment Assistance, are an integral part of the president's plan to create jobs here at home."
In a rare instance of concurrence, both Obama and Republicans have made the trade treaties a part of their jobs agenda, saying that once in effect they will increase U.S. exports by some $13 billion a year and support tens of thousands of jobs.
The Senate vote Thursday extends some benefits that were added to the TAA program as part of the stimulus act but which expired last February. The 2009 additions included more money for retraining and increased unemployment support and health insurance subsidies. They also extended eligibility to public sector and service industry workers and farmers, and to workers affected by trade with countries that don't have free trade agreements with the United States, such as China and India.
After GOP objections that these additions doubled the cost of the program, which had been operating at about $1 billion a year, Baucus and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., reached a compromise that trimmed some of the 2009 benefits.
Public sector workers will no longer be eligible and unemployment benefits were reduced. The health insurance tax credit was cut from 80 percent in 2009 to 72.5 percent. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a sponsor of the compromise, said the 10-year cost would be $962 million.
The vote was still a difficult one for some Republicans. The pro-trade U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has close ties to the GOP, urged senators to vote for the TAA bill, saying their votes will be part of the chamber's annual scorecard of how lawmakers vote on key issues. Similarly, the conservative Club for Growth, calling TAA "duplicative, inequitable and inappropriate," said lawmakers should vote `no' and reminded them that the vote will be part of their annual scorecard.
Democrats, while split on the trade agreements, were solidly behind the TAA extension, and the AFL-CIO asked senators to vote for the compromise and against any amendments that might modify or weaken the TAA program.
Republicans offered amendments during the week to restrict the benefits outlined in the compromise, but they were all rejected, mainly along party lines.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said TAA overlapped with some 47 employment and training programs operating across nine federal agencies. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in questioning the eligibility criteria for TAA, noted that employees at Solyndra, the California solar panel company that went bankrupt despite a $535 million federal loan guarantee, were applying for TAA benefits.
"Perhaps the most egregious aspect is voting to spend more taxpayer dollars on an expanded domestic spending program of dubious value" at a time when Congress is trying to bring the deficit under control, Hatch said.
But Casey, citing Labor Department figures, said that in the two-year period from May 2009, some 186,000 of the 447,000 workers certified as eligible for TAA benefits qualified under the expanded 2009 act. "That is relevant because it was helping folks to be retrained, helping them to get the skills they need for a new career ... during the worst economic catastrophe in 100 years, other than the Great Depression."
The TAA provisions were attached to a largely non-controversial trade bill that extends a program called the General System of Preferences. That program allows some 130 developing countries to ship 4,800 products, mostly raw materials and components, to the United States without paying duties.
The Senate also rejected, on a 48-48 vote, an amendment by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would have compelled the administration to sell new F-16 fighters to Taiwan. The administration on Wednesday announced a $5.85 billion package to upgrade Taiwan's existing fleet of F-16s, but said the request for new planes was still under consideration.