House Republicans are bucking demands from the Obama White House to include renewal of a U.S. job training assistance program in long-pending legislation providing free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
The standoff could jeopardize passage of the trade pacts, which are to be brought before the Ways and Means Committee later this week.
The panel, which oversees trade agreements, has scheduled a Thursday meeting to debate and vote on the drafts of legislation to implement the three new deals signed during the George W. Bush administration but stalled in past congresses controlled by Democrats.
The Obama administration now supports the agreements, after negotiated changes in the accords including greater access for U.S. autos in South Korea and commitments by the Colombian government to end the suppression of worker rights. But it has also demanded that the trade package be linked to renewal of expired sections of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program which provides financial and retraining aid to displaced workers.
Republicans have supported TAA in the past, but have balked both at the cost of the program, about $1 billion a year, and the linkage with the trade agreements. Last Thursday the Finance Committee in the Democratic-led Senate was to have met to consider the trade deals and TAA together, but the hearing was canceled after Republicans on the committee boycotted.
Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., in a statement Tuesday, said: "right now, our competitors are gaining ground in these vital markets and jobless Americans in need of opportunities are left waiting while these trade agreements languish." He added, "we need to come together to move these three trade agreements and Trade Adjustment Assistance forward as soon as possible because American workers and small businesses simply cannot afford to wait any longer."
GOP allies in the business committee, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have urged Congress to move quickly on the three trade agreements, saying they could boost U.S. exports by $13 billion and create tens of thousands of jobs. The Chamber said it supported TAA and said it appreciated bipartisan efforts to reach a reasonable compromise on TAA legislation.
Ways and Means aides said the House could still consider a TAA bill separately, but they were waiting for guidance from the GOP leadership.
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Sander Levin of Michigan, and the top Democrat on the trade subcommittee, Jim McDermott of Washington, said there were "two fundamental problems" with the GOP approach _ the omission of TAA and the failure to incorporate into the Colombia agreement an "action plan" by which the Bogota government commits to improving labor rights in the country.