WASHINGTON Republican lawmakers set the stage on Tuesday for a second showdown with the White House over the Obama administration's demand Congress pass legislation to help workers hurt by trade as part of a package of long-delayed trade deals.
The House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee said it would meet on Thursday to vote on draft bills to implement trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia that were each signed more than four years ago.
But Republicans said the package would not include a renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA, despite White House demands that the program to help workers displaced by trade be passed along with the deals.
The Republicans' move follows their boycott last week of the Senate Finance Committee that blocked plans by the panel to begin long-delayed congressional action on the trade deals.
Republicans on the Senate panel objected to a White House plan to include a renewal of the nearly five-decade-old TAA program in the draft bill for the Korea pact instead of allowing lawmakers to vote separately on it.
The standoff complicates chances of Congress approving the three trade deals by the end of July, although supporters believe that target is still possible.
In the end, President Barack Obama could just send the three trade deals to Congress with TAA included and dare Republicans to disappoint U.S. business and farm groups that want the trade deals passed by voting against them.
LONGTIME REPUBLICAN PRIORITY
The trade deals were originally negotiated during the Republican administration of President George W. Bush and passing them has been a party priority.
The House Ways and Means Committee's session this week to vote on draft bills is a traditional part of the way Congress considers legislation to implement trade agreements.
Under previously agreed rules, lawmakers cannot amend the deals once the White House formally submits the implementing legislation to Congress.
So, in advance of that step, the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee hold informal sessions to vote on nonbinding amendments they want the White House to include in the final implementing bill.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk welcomed the effort to move the three trade deals forward in the House, but not the decision to exclude TAA.
That is "at odds with the administration's stated intentions for advancing a package that includes both the free-trade agreements and assistance for workers adversely impacted by trade," Kirk said in a statement.
"The administration remains committed to advancing the renewal of a robust Trade Adjustment Assistance program that is the product of a bipartisan process, together with the pending trade agreements, as soon as possible," he said.
A Republican aide downplayed the rift, noting House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp helped negotiate a slimmed down version of TAA with the White House, though he never agreed to putting it in the Korea trade bill.
"Camp has said all along that as soon as there is a deal on the substance, then the leaders have to work a deal on the process. That deal hasn't happened yet, so we're not at odds. We hope to find a path forward," the aide said.
In a preview of a contentious session on Thursday, top Ways and Means Democrats also criticized Republicans for excluding TAA from the trade legislation and for failing to include a White House-negotiated "action plan" to address labor concerns in the implementing bill for the Colombia trade deal.
The White House has sided with Republicans in not including the action plan in the Colombia, the most controversial of the three trade agreements because of the country's long history of anti-union violence.
"The Administration should have stood firm on its inclusion in the implementing bill, just as we expect it to stand firm on TAA," Representatives Sander Levin and Jim McDermott said in a joint statement.
TAA provides retraining assistance and income support for workers who have lost their job because of import competition or their workplace moving overseas.
It was expanded in 2009 to cover more workers and provide more generous health care assistance, boosting the annual cost of the program to about $1 billion.
House Republicans, fresh from a November election victory on promises to cut spending, balked at renewing the expanded benefits when they expired early this year.
The White House warned in May, however, it would not send the three long-delayed free-trade agreements to Congress for approval until there was a deal to renew expanded TAA benefits.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Sandra Maler and Philip Barbara)