Senate Democrats on Wednesday stressed that congressional action on long-pending free trade agreements must be linked to renewal of a federal program that helps American workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition.
Republicans, meanwhile, expressed impatience with the administration's pace in submitting the free trade accords to Congress for ratification, saying American producers were losing export markets because of delays.
The comments came at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the trade agreement with Colombia, probably the most controversial of three accords _ also with South Korea and Panama _ that were signed during the George W. Bush administration but have yet to come up for a vote in Congress.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the committee and a strong supporter of the Colombia agreement, said it was clear that action to extend the Trade Adjustment Assistance program must come in tandem with action on the trade deals. "We are not going to get one without the other," Baucus said. "As far as I'm concerned the two must go together."
That half-century-old trade adjustment program, or TAA, was expanded two years ago as part of the Obama administration's stimulus package to include more displaced workers, but the expansion expired in February this year.
Extension of the TAA, which last year helped more than 200,000 workers with job training and income support, "should have preceded these three trade agreements," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. "For me the timing is very important," added Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
Republicans in the past have generally been supportive of the TAA program, but on Wednesday several expressed concerns about more obstacles being put in the way of a vote on the Colombia agreement. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the level of spending under the 2009 expansion is no longer sustainable and the top Republican on the committee, Orrin Hatch of Utah, pressed an administration official on whether TAA extension was a precondition of movement on the trade deals.
Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro said that while it was not a precondition, extending the job training program was critical and should be part of the trade agenda.
Administration officials and congressional staff began informal talks last week on legislation needed to implement the three trade deals. That step came after Colombia in April agreed to an action plan on securing labor rights and ending the violence against labor leaders that has long plagued that country.
Sapiro and Sandra Polaski, deputy undersecretary for international labor affairs at the Labor Department, praised the progress of the Bogota government in carrying out the plan and expressed confidence it would meet a June 15 deadline for a second stage of the plan, including passing laws to criminalize actions that threaten workers.
Baucus said it was his understanding that once this June 15 stage of commitments is met the administration is prepared to formally submit the trade agreement to Congress.
Jeff Vogt, representing the AFL-CIO, told the hearing that while there was "some room for optimism' in the actions Colombia is taking, the labor organization would continue to oppose the trade deal until there is proof that the "horrific history" of labor and human rights violations is over.
Sen. Kerry, D-Mass., said he had not supported the agreement in the past because of the labor rights issue, but as Colombia prepares to appoint a new labor minister and take other steps, "I believe the time has come to ratify this treaty."
Republicans insisted that the time is overdue. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said U.S. exports have been charged with $3.5 billion in tariffs since the agreement was signed more than four years ago and that the U.S. share of the agriculture export market to Colombia has declined significantly in recent years as Colombia moved ahead with free trade deals with Argentina and Canada.