WASHINGTON, July 22 Urging U.S. President Barack Obama to send three long-delayed free trade pacts to Congress for approval, 12 Republican senators pledged not to impede a vote on a separate worker retraining bill.
The move is aimed at providing assurance to the Obama administration that an extension of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program will get a vote -- and pass -- in the Democratic-controlled Senate when trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama are considered.
Republicans in Congress oppose including the retraining provisions in legislation to approve the trade pacts but Obama, a Democrat, has refrained from sending stand-alone bills.
"While not going forward with these agreements we're losing market share every day, which means American workers, American farmers, American service providers are losing opportunities." said Rob Portman, a Republican senator and former U.S. Trade Representative.
The European Union has had its own free trade pact with South Korea since July 1 and is already seeing double-digit percentage rises in exports to the Asian industrial powerhouse, he said.
The White House had hoped to pass all three trade deals before the August break but the disagreement with Republicans over the retraining program has complicated the effort. Many Republicans question the effectiveness of the program and its costs in a difficult budgetary environment.
In a letter to Obama, the 12 Republican senators -- including Portman and Roy Blunt of Missouri -- said they would not join any effort to block consideration or a final vote on the bill.
The pledge means Democrats could easily secure the 60 votes needed in the 100-seat Senate to fend off any procedural challenges.
Passage of a separate extension of the retraining program may be more difficult in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
An Obama administration official called the pledge a "welcome development" but repeated statements that more specifics were needed from House and Senate leaders to secure passage of the three trade agreements and the retraining bill.
Trade Adjustment Assistance is a nearly 50-year-old retraining and income assistance program for workers who have lost jobs because of foreign competition.
Many Republicans object to the White House plan to include an extension of the program in the implementing legislation for the South Korea trade agreement, instead of allowing lawmakers a separate vote.
Democrats view the program as a vital part of the U.S. social safety net and fear the extension will be killed by Senate opponents if not shielded by the South Korean pact. (Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by John O'Callaghan)