* Business looks for framework for action on pacts
* Congressional aides say situation still unclear
* Manufacturers says delay cost workers $12 billion
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, Aug 1 A deal to raise the U.S. debt
ceiling after weeks of tough talks between the White House and
Congress has raised hope leaders will now turn their attention
to resolving difference blocking three long-delayed trade
deals, U.S. business groups said on Monday.
"It would be good if we can start those wheels turning
before (lawmakers) go away" for their month-long August recess,
said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade
Council, whose members include major exporters such as Boeing
(BA.N) and Caterpillar (CAT.N).
The ugly negotiations over raising the debt ceiling and
cutting the huge budget deficit occupied most of the White
House and congressional leaders' time in July, blocking work on
a deal to move the trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and
Panama to Congress for votes.
But now that it looks like Congress will approve a debt
agreement, "I think there's a very strong desire to come
together and work out something" on the trade accords, said
Bill Morley, president of Altrius Group, which lobbies on
behalf of the American Chamber of Commerce in Colombia.
Morley said he hoped Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell would "lay out a
framework" for action in September on the pacts and a worker
retraining program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA).
That would give South Korea, Colombia and Panama some
reassurance that years of U.S. delay in passing the agreement
are nearly over, he said.
However, congressional aides said it was unclear whether
such an announcement would come.
There have been "productive" talks with leaders in the
House of Representatives and the Senate, but "there is not an
agreement on a path forward," a Senate Democratic aide said.
The administration expects the three pacts to boost exports
by about $13 billion, helping to create or support about 70,000
jobs and giving the U.S. economy a much-needed lift.
The deals were all signed during the administration of
former President George W. Bush. However, they languished
because of strong opposition from Democrats, who controlled the
House of Representative from 2006 through 2010.
Frank Vargo, vice president at the National Association of
Manufacturers, said his group estimates American workers would
have earned $12 billion more in wages and benefits over the
past several years had the pacts not been delayed.
Unless the debt deal falls apart and "turns everything
upside down ... I am optimistic for the trade agreements in
September," Vargo said.
TAA STUMBLING BLOCK
President Barack Obama's administration has negotiated a
number of side agreements to address Democratic Party concerns
about the pacts and had hoped to win congressional approval of
the deals before the August break.
But Republicans strongly objected to a White House plan to
include an extension of TAA in the implementing agreement for
the South Korean pact. Many party members question the value of
the nearly 50-year-old retraining program for workers who have
lost their jobs because of foreign competition.
Last week, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the
administration was open to a separate vote on TAA and hoped a
deal could be reached soon to clear the way for it and the
trade deals to be approved in September.
Timothy Keeler, a lawyer at Mayer Brown and former U.S.
trade official, said that target was more likely now that the
administration has reconsidered its plan to include TAA in the
legislation for the Korea pact.
The most likely way forward is for the Senate to start by
debating and approving TAA, as House Ways and Means Committee
Chairman Dave Camp outlined last week, Keeler said.
Once that has been done, Obama would submit the free trade
agreements to Congress and the House would begin action on the
pacts along with TAA, he said.
But many Democrats want both the House and the Senate to
approve TAA before Obama sends up the agreements.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)