WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said on Wednesday the panel would try to restart action on Thursday on three long-delayed free trade deals, after Republicans boycotted talks over a program to help workers displaced by trade.
“It is past time to get this package moving. Right now, our competitors are gaining ground in these vital markets, and jobless Americans in need of opportunities are left waiting while these trade agreements languish,” Baucus said in a statement on Wednesday.
The Montana Democrat scheduled committee action on the trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama for Thursday morning, just an hour before the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee will meet to consider the same pacts.
In both sessions, lawmakers will vote on non-binding amendments in a traditional first step for congressional consideration of trade pacts.
Under previously agreed rules, lawmakers can not amend trade agreements once the White House formally submits them to Congress. So the informal sessions are an opportunity for lawmakers to help shape the final bills.
Republican opposition to renewal of the nearly five-decade-old Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program has become the biggest obstacle to approval of the trade deals, which were negotiated during the Republican administration of President George W. Bush.
Republicans boycotted a Senate Finance Committee meeting last week to protest the White House decision to include renewal of TAA in the implementing bill for the Korea agreement, the biggest of three pacts, instead of allowing lawmakers to vote separately on the program.
They also objected to Baucus’ original decision to hold the meeting late on Thursday afternoon, which they said would not give committee members enough time to debate amendments before leaving for a long holiday weekend.
Senator Orrin Hatch, the panel’s top Republican, indicated on Wednesday that Republicans would not boycott the second attempt to meet.
“While Republicans continue to believe that adding TAA to the trade agreements is an abuse of long-standing trade rules, tomorrow members will have the time to fully examine and consider our trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, and if desired, offer amendments,” he said.
Meanwhile, the head of the largest U.S. trade organization criticized President Barack Obama’s decision to push for approval of the deals, saying they would cost the United States more than 150,000 manufacturing job.
“These agreements are the wrong medicine at the wrong time for an ailing economy,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation told reporters in a conference call.
Trumka said his group was optimistic more than half of the 192 Democrats in the House of Representatives would vote against the three trade deals.
Republicans, who currently control 240 seats in the House, are expected to vote in large numbers for the three pacts.
But Trumka said he thought it was possible to pick up enough votes from both parties to block the agreements.
He cited a study by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, which estimated the biggest of the three trade deals, the U.S.-Korea pact, would displace about 159,000 U.S. jobs within the first seven years it takes effect.
In contrast, supporters say the pacts would create tens of thousands of new jobs by boosting trade.
They also point to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce-funded study that estimated 345,017 would be lost to competitors such as Canada and the European Union if the pacts are not approved.
Editing by Philip Barbara