WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. business leader said on Monday he expected President Barack Obama to formally submit free trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress in coming days and urged their quick approval.
“We’ve waited for years to get those three free trade agreements done. If we don’t do that, it’s criminal,” Thomas Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told reporters.
Donohue said “there is no excuse ... in either party” for not quickly passing the deals.
But he stopped short of singling out Republicans for holding up the pacts because of their objection to a White House plan to include a worker retraining program, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, in the implementing legislation for one of the pacts, the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement.
The disagreement over Trade Adjustment Assistance, a decades-old program that provides retraining and income assistance to workers who have lost their jobs because of foreign competition, is the biggest issue left blocking approval of the agreements.
Democrats view it as vital to help workers who lose their jobs as a result of U.S. trade deals or companies moving overseas. But a number of Republicans question the program’s effectiveness as well as its cost.
To address those concerns, the White House negotiated a compromise that reduces the cost of TAA reforms adopted in 2009. It has signaled to business groups that it plans to submit the Korea trade bill with the bipartisan TAA plan included, consistent with a draft bill approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee.
However, Republicans have pressed to have the two issues considered separately, so a draft Korea trade bill approved by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee does not include TAA.
Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, called for a meeting between House and Senate negotiators to resolve the difference on TAA, rather than leave it to the White House to decide.
But an Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that was a stalling tactic.
“The Senate Finance Committee has produced a vehicle that moves the three trade agreements and resolves the outstanding issue of the bipartisan TAA compromise. We believe it is time to stop delaying these job-supporting agreements and TAA and move forward as soon as possible,” the official said.
House Ways and Means Committee spokesman Jim Billimoria said the panel’s top Republicans were “continuing to have a wide range of discussions with the administration, leadership, and the Senate in the hopes of identifying a path forward.”
Donohue said he expected the House to take the Korea bill that Obama submits and divide it into two sections, one covering TAA and the other the agreement itself, so lawmakers could vote separately on each issue.
Then, “I’m very hopeful they’ll put them together when they send it to the Senate,” Donohue said, though that would deny Senate Republicans the opportunity to vote separately on TAA and the trade pact, as leaders there have demanded.
TAA supporters believe House Speaker John Boehner could divide the Korea bill into two parts without the legislation losing its current protection against amendments.
But they want him to stitch the Korea bill back together when he sends it to the Senate because that’s where the greater threat to TAA is seen.
Jeffrey Immelt, chairman of General Electric Co and head of President Barack Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, also urged quick final action on the deals, which were all signed more than four years ago under former President George W. Bush’s administration.
“With every day that passes, these are opportunities lost,” Immelt told reporters after a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters. Right now, the bills are “late, stuck and at the risk going nowhere,” he said.
Earlier, scores of protesters held a rally against the Colombia free trade agreement across the street from the White House, making speeches and chanting slogans.
They displayed 51 black cardboard “coffins” to symbolize the number of union workers they said had been murdered in Colombia in the past year.
Many Democrats remain concerned about Colombia’s long history of anti-union violence and record on workers rights, even though the Obama administration has negotiated an “action plan” with Bogota to address those issues.
“The action plan is a sham. No FTA,” the protesters chanted, expressing their opposition to the measure.
Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Christopher Wilson