WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two senior Democrats on Thursday reacted warily to a Senate deal to ensure passage of three long-delayed free trade agreements, saying they wanted an absolute guarantee that a retraining program for displaced workers would also be approved.
"The path forward in the House (of Representatives) as well as the Senate must be ironclad in its assurance that TAA (Trade Adjustment Assistance) will be renewed," Representatives Sander Levin and Jim McDermott said in a joint statement.
Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, and McDermott, the top Democrat on the panel's trade subcommittee, issued the statement after Senate leaders late on Wednesday outlined a plan for action on the trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama and the TAA program.
The understanding raised hopes the agreements could be approved by late September or early October, after lawmakers return from their month-long August break. All three of the pacts were signed more than four years ago.
A congressional aide said Democrats were concerned about Republican House Speaker John Boehner's statement welcoming the understanding between Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Boehner said he looked forward to passing the three trade pacts, but only promised that the TAA would be "considered" by the House at the same time.
Democrats are worried a stand-alone TAA bill could be killed in the House even if it passes the Senate.
However, Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office, did not echo that concern.
"While some sequencing details remain to be worked out, the Speaker has now clearly committed to floor consideration of TAA along with the trade agreements. The Senate leaders' agreement on a way forward is an important step on the path to submission of the pending agreements," Guthrie said.
The White House had hoped Congress would approve the deals before the summer recess, but a disagreement over TAA and the fight over raising the U.S. debt ceiling prevented that.
TAA is nearly 50-year-old program to help workers that have lost their job because of import competition or their workplace moving overseas. It was expanded in 2009 to cover more workers with improved benefits, but that expired early this year.
Many newly elected House Republicans balked at renewing the program, which they consider costly and ineffective.
To address those concerns, the White House negotiated a slimmed down version of TAA. But its plan to sidestep a direct vote on TAA by inserting it in the legislation for the South Korea pact angered many Republicans.
The White House no longer appears committed to that approach. Levin and McDermott said TAA should be attached to the South Korea pact unless Republicans provide an ironclad guarantee that the program will not be defeated.
Meanwhile, business groups welcomed the Reid-McConnell agreement and urged quick follow through.
"While there will be many legislative priorities when Congress returns, the administration and Congress must now move to a vote and finally take yes for an answer on trade," said Chuck Dittrich, vice president for regional trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council.
The Colombia agreement in particular will face strong opposition from U.S. labor groups, who argue the South American country has not done enough to stop killings of trade unionists and to lockup the perpetrators.
"Unfortunately, Colombia is still the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in letter Thursday to members of Congress.
Fifty-one trade unionists were killed in Colombia in 2010 and 17 so far this year, Trumka said.
Editing by Eric Beech