Republican blames Obama for trade programs lapse
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's failure to lay out a timetable for winning congressional approval of free trade pacts with Colombia and Panama has blocked renewal of trade programs for the Andean region and displaced U.S. workers, a top Republican lawmaker said on Friday.
"Without this commitment from the administration, other trade measures -- such as TAA (Trade Adjustment Assistance) and ATPA (Andean Trade Preferences Act), which we sought to extend this week -- are now in limbo and American workers will suffer as a result," House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp said in a statement.
Camp repeated his call for action on the Colombia and Panama agreements by July 1, as well as on an agreement with South Korea that the Obama administration already has said it would send to Congress in coming weeks.
The Colombia agreement, in particular, is unpopular with many Democrats because of strong opposition from U.S. labor groups, which say that country has not done enough to stop killings of trade unionists and prosecute the murderers.
This week U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Obama had instructed him to intensify talks with Colombia and Panama to resolve concerns.
In Panama's case, the administration is pushing for additional labor reforms and implementation of a tax information exchange agreement the two countries signed last year to address tax haven concerns.
In the meantime, both trade adjustment assistance and the Andean Trade Preferences have become entangled in the debate over when Congress will vote on the Colombia and Panama pacts.
Both programs are set to expire on Saturday. They were extended for just six weeks at the end of last year.
Obama's top economic adviser, Gene Sperling, did not respond in a statement to Camp's demand for a timetable for action on the Panama and Colombia pacts, but said the White House was "disappointed that some in Congress have blocked renewing key elements of trade adjustment assistance."
"As a result of this inaction, 155,000 Americans will lose access to the job training they need to provide for their families and compete in the global economy," Sperling said.
Congress expanded trade adjustment assistance in 2009 to provide retraining benefits for service industry workers who have lost their jobs because of trade competition. Previously the program only covered workers in the manufacturing sector.
Republicans had hoped the expansion would reduce Democratic resistance to action on the three pending trade deals, which date back to the administration of George W. Bush.
Representative Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, pinned the blame for expiration of the expanded trade adjustment assistance benefits on Republicans, who now control the House.
"Because the majority in this House has failed to act, there are going to be tens of thousands of people who will have no place to turn in terms of training," Levin said.
The Andean trade preference program has provided duty-free treatment for most of Peru, Colombia and Ecuador's export to the United States since the early 1990s.
Colombia has hoped to graduate from the program to a permanent free trade arrangement with the United States, as its neighbor Peru already has done.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Xavier Briand)