WASHINGTON Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday said the Senate would soon begin debate on a bill to help retrain workers thrown out of work by foreign competition, setting the stage for President Barack Obama to submit three long-delayed trade deals to Congress.
The Nevada Democrat told reporters he would soon bring up legislation for two trade programs -- Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which is a worker retraining program, and the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which waives duties on imports from developing countries.
Reid told reporters he would follow that with action on a separate bill to crack down on China currency manipulation.
President Barack Obama has insisted Congress pass TAA along with the trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
Many Republicans are skeptical of the merits of the nearly 50-year-old retraining and income assistance program and objected to an earlier White House plan to include TAA in the implementing legislation for the South Korean trade deal.
But Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, said on Tuesday he believed the White House, Senate leaders and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner now have agreed on a "very tight process" for moving the trade deals and a separate bill to renew Trade Adjustment Assistance."
"I'm optimistic that we can get this done and get this done very soon," Brady said in remarks to the anti-unilateral sanctions business group, USA Engage.
Still, neither Boehner's office or the U.S. Trade Representative's office confirmed a deal.
All three trade deals were signed more than four years ago and have been sitting on Obama's desk since January 2009.
Over the past year, Obama has moved more aggressively to get the deals approved. But the push hit a snag over TAA, since many Democrats feared Republicans would kill the bill if not shielded by the popular Korean pact.
TAA was expanded in 2009 to cover more workers and to provide better benefits. But those changes expired early this year and Republicans balked at renewing them.
The White House has since negotiated a trimmed down version of the 2009 reforms with two key members of Congress.
The Senate is expected as pass that compromise as part of a bill to renew GSP benefits for developing countries.
Because of the crowded Senate calendar, the earliest the TAA-GSP bill is likely to come up is next week.
The package would then go to the House, where it is expected to be passed in tandem with the trade pacts.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer, Editing by Neil Stempleman and Cynthia Osterman)