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Partisan rift stalling free-trade pacts

S. Korea, Colombia and Panama deals held up over adjustment assistance

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Lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday clashed over long-delayed free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, with Republicans balking at an Obama administration demand to attach money for a program to aid American workers as a part of the package.

Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee warned they would vote against the trade pacts - the first major free-trade deals to move forward under Mr. Obama - unless funds for the controversial Trade Adjustment Assistance program were also included to protect workers who lose their jobs because of increased imports.

But Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, who last week boycotted a vote on the issue, stood firm against legislation to move forward the South Korea deal, after the majority Democrats included the TAA funding on a straight 13-11 party-line vote.

"I support the South Korea trade-implementing bill and want it to pass," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the committee's ranking Republican said. "But I cannot condone this abuse of [the president's trade-negotiating authority] or turn a blind eye to dubious domestic spending programs."

By the end of the day, the Senate committee had approved a version of the trade bill with the TAA money included, while the House Ways and Means Committee approved a version without the funds.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, defended the TAA program, noting that it had been routinely included as past free-trade deals were negotiated for a half-century.

Under the unique rules for considering trade bills, the congressional committees offer "recommendations" on draft versions of legislation to implement the pacts. The White House, after further negotiations, then will determine the final version it submits to Congress, with no amendments allowed.

The White House recently announced a compromise with Mr. Baucus and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, Michigan Republican, on a scaled-down version of TAA, reducing the payments to displaced workers from 156 weeks to 117 weeks. The compromise would also cut the health coverage tax credit for affected workers and eliminate it altogether by the end of 2013.

The free-trade deals have strong backing from the business community, and President Obama and top Hill Republicans have cited trade as one area of bipartisan cooperation in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections.

The trade agreements originally were negotiated by the administration of President George W. Bush, but have yet to be officially submitted to Congress.

Recently, the Obama administration renegotiated the agreements, and Democrats said they were ready to vote in favor of the deals with South Korea and Panama, although some in the party have raised questions about Colombia's record on labor rights and protections for union leaders.

Republicans, however, have said they would not vote on the deals until all three are ready.

U.S. business groups have expressed fears that the trade stalemate will leave the U.S. on the sidelines as the European Union and other rivals rush to open markets with rising economic powers such as South Korea.

"One thing is perfectly clear: We cannot afford to let these trade agreements languish any longer," Mr. Camp said. "The rest of the world is fast moving forward, and we risk losing market share and jobs if we fail to act."

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