- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2011

President Obama and Senate Democrats announced a deal Tuesday to link three pending free trade agreements to enhanced aid for displaced workers, saying it paves the way for Congress to vote - but GOP leaders said the move could cost the administration the support of Republicans who will be needed to pass the deals.

The White House said the deal with the Senate Finance Committee to renew federal Trade Adjustment Assistance would provide job training and income support for displaced workers, boosting the program’s training funding from $220 million to $575 million.

Administration officials trumpeted the proposal as a bipartisan compromise with the congressional panels of jurisdiction, even though the Republican-controlled House Ways and Means Committee opposes tying it to a trade deal with South Korea.

“This was truly a bipartisan negotiation,” said a senior administration official briefing reporters. “It was hard fought and there was compromise on all sides. But we think that this is a strong package that reflected the different priorities of those in the House, Senate and the administration.”

The key question now is the process both chambers use to bring the three trade agreements up for votes.

After facing criticism for sitting on long-stalled trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, Mr. Obama tweaked the agreements - all of which were struck under the Bush administration [-] and earlier this year said he was ready to submit the trio to Congress for implementation.

But a new roadblock soon emerged as the White House, seeking to quell labor concerns that the deals would put American workers at a disadvantage, made their submission contingent on an extension of the TAA program.

The stalemate seems far from broken, however.

Republicans balked at the aid proposal, which they say should be dealt with separately, with many Republicans arguing the country’s debt problems preclude the additional spending. A final deal in the divided Congress requires bipartisan support.

“Today’s action puts at risk what should be a bipartisan job-creation exercise,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said. “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.”

Added a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner: “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.”

Despite the administration’s best efforts, its worker-aid push doesn’t appear to satisfy critics at the other end of the ideological spectrum, either.

“What’s newsworthy is not that the administration is pushing Trade Adjustment Assistance, which effectively is a job burial insurance program, but that pushing a deal on TAA is being used as political cover to move more NAFTA-style trade agreements that will kill more American jobs in the first place, especially given our high unemployment rates,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

Under the South Korea agreement, struck in 2007, the two countries would eliminate tariffs on 95 percent of consumer and industrial goods within three years, while the Colombia deal would allow many key U.S. exports - ranging from construction and information-technology equipment to wheat, barley, soybeans and high-quality beef - to immediately gain duty-free access. Tariffs on remaining goods will be phased out over the next 15 years. The Panama pact will give the U.S. access to the country’s services market, including the financial, telecommunciations and energy sectors.

For their part, business leaders called on Congress to approve the deals as soon as possible.

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