WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Tuesday made a push to advance long-delayed trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, challenging Republican lawmakers over a worker retraining program that many of them oppose.
The plan announced on Tuesday inserts renewal of the controversial Trade Adjustment Assistance program, or TAA, into the legislation for the South Korea deal.
That could put Republicans in the difficult position of having to vote against a free trade agreement which they have long supported, rather than accept an extension of the federal training program whose effectiveness they question.
If successful, however, the plan could clear the way for approval of the deals by the end of July. The deals could boost U.S. exports by $13 billion, helping to create jobs at a time when the United States is struggling with high unemployment.
Obama administration officials said they were confident their strategy would work, despite the strong protest from Republicans leaders over the retraining program.
The White House believes supporters of the three trade agreements will vote to approve the pacts, “despite the fact this bill includes crucial assistance for workers,” an Obama administration official told reporters.
The officials noted the White House worked out the deal to renew a slimmed down version of TAA with the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp.
“The final result is a program that has been cut not only from 2009 levels, but also below 2002 levels in several key areas,” Camp said in a statement that noted it would be up to House Republican leaders to determine whether to back the TAA compromise as part of the South Korea bill.
The nearly 50-year-old TAA program helps retrain workers who have lost their jobs because of import competition or their workplace relocating overseas.
Camp, who comes from the high-unemployment state of Michigan, helped shape a bipartisan compromise to expand TAA in 2009 to include additional workers and more generous healthcare benefits. It now costs about $1 billion annually and administration officials said they did not have a final estimate of what the revised program would cost.
Business groups urged both Democrats and Republicans to support the plan, which comes just before a rival free trade agreement between the European Union and South Korea goes into force on Friday.
“For members of Congress who care about American jobs, this is a moment of truth,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said in a statement. “I urge members of both parties to seize a reasonable compromise and move the trade agenda forward. The time to act is now.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned the administration was jeopardizing support for the South Korea agreement, the biggest of the three pending trade deals.
“I would strongly urge the administration to rethink this action, and urge them to send up all three pending trade agreements without delay and without extraneous poison pills included,” McConnell said in a statement.
“Speaking for myself, I’ve never voted against a trade agreement before. If the administration were to embed a Trade Adjustment Assistance into the Korea trade agreement I would be voting against it,” he told reporters separately.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner also threw cold water on the plan, which faces its first test on Thursday when the Senate Finance Committee begins work on the three pacts.
The panel, working from draft legislation developed with help from the White House, will hold an informal session to vote on amendments to the trade deals.
After a similar session in the House Ways and Means Committee, the White House will decide whether to incorporate any changes approved by the panels in its final bill.
The procedure gives lawmakers their only opportunity to modify the trade legislation. Under previously agreed rules, Congress can only vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the three agreements once they are formally submitted to Congress.
Republican Boehner’s office indicated Republicans might use the Ways and Means session to try to strip TAA from the bill.
“We have long said that TAA — even this scaled-back version — should be dealt with separately from the trade agreements, and that is how we expect to proceed,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
Some Democratic opponents of trade deals, such as Senator Sherrod Brown, also objected to including TAA in the South Korea pact, saying lawmakers should have the opportunity to vote separately on the legislation.
But U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said bundling TAA and the trade pacts together was “the right thing to do because a balanced trade agenda recognizes the tough realities of trade for some Americans, even as we seize trade’s opportunities to create jobs here at home.”
The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Orrin Hatch, condemned the White House move.
“This highly partisan decision to include TAA in the South Korean FTA implementing bill risks support for this critical job-creating trade pact in the name of a welfare program of questionable benefit at a time when our nation is broke,” Hatch said in a statement.
Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Anthony Boadle and Mohammad Zargham