WASHINGTON The Senate aims to begin debate Monday on legislation to retrain U.S. workers who lose jobs due to overseas competition, a move that could set the stage for Congress to consider three long-delayed trade deals.
President Barack Obama has insisted that Congress pass a bill renewing the Trade Adjustment Assistance program along with free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. The program, which faces Republican opposition, provides retraining for workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition.
"I believe we will begin consideration of the trade adjustment assistance bill Monday," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Friday, with a preliminary procedural vote anticipated.
Many Republicans are skeptical of the merits of the nearly 50-year-old retraining and income assistance program, and object to an earlier White House plan to include TAA in the implementing legislation for the South Korean trade pact.
Republican leaders in Congress have pledged to pass TAA separately, but many Democrats are concerned that will not happen once the trade deals are approved and they lose leverage.
Reid's plan aims to end the standoff over the trade deals by passing the retraining bill first. The package would then go to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where it would be passed in tandem with the trade pacts.
Obama and his Democrats, along with Republicans, have pointed to the trade pacts as a way to aid weak U.S. job growth by boosting exports.
MARKET SHARE LOSSES
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Wednesday that further delays in passing the South Korea, Colombia and Panama trade deals means that products made by American firms and workers stand to lose market share in those countries to foreign competitors.
Passage of the pacts also could pave the way for more trade agreements that would further boost U.S. exports, he said.
"When we demonstrate that we can legislate agreements, then countries around the world will have an incentive to negotiate with us," Geithner told a CNBC forum.
Reid accused Republicans of seeking to stall the trade adjustment assistance bill, and he scheduled a procedural vote for Monday to try to speed up Senate debate.
"There isn't a thing that we can bring up here that they (Republicans) don't stall," Reid said.
"We're going to move to these free trade agreements. The first part of the deal of course is trade adjustment assistance and we have to invoke cloture to do this. I think that's a travesty and it's too bad," Reid said.
"Cloture" in this case is the procedural vote by Senate Democrats to limit opponents' stalling tactics on the trade adjustment assistance bill.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan and David Lawder; Writing by David Lawder; Editing by Eric Walsh and Vicki Allen)