The White House on Monday threatened to withhold three pending free-trade agreements from Congress if lawmakers don't also agree to extend assistance for workers displaced by outsourcing - something President Obama's union backers have been fervently seeking.
The announcement, made by top administration officials in a conference call with reporters, attaches conditions to one of the biggest fights on Capitol Hill this year, sending a sharp signal to Republicans - who have demanded the White House submit the long-stalled deals - that any step forward is contingent on renewal of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program (TAA).
"We have not wavered from our and the president's position that addressing and keeping faith with America's workers is just as important as our commitment to move forward with the FTAs," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told reporters Monday morning.
Republicans said the demand amounted to an 11th-hour surprise, and questioned why the White House would hold hostage the Colombia, South Korea and Panama trade agreements, which Mr. Obama has said would create jobs.
But Mr. Kirk was optimistic that both sides of the aisle will agree to a TAA extension. Obama administration officials said they didn't have a cost estimate for it, however, and said the timing will be determined by Congress.
Mr. Kirk and other officials said they've been in discussions with both committees of jurisdiction - the Democratic-led Senate Finance Committee and the Republican-led House Ways and Means Committee - on legislation to implement the agreements, which were originally struck under the Bush administration but recently tweaked by the Obama administration.
Labor groups have been publicly critical of the White House's trade agenda even as the administration delayed its support of the three deals until it obtained additional concessions on major sticking points, such as auto provisions in the South Korea deal and worker protections with respect to the Colombia pact.
"We see no reason, particularly at a time when we have 9 percent unemployment, that that basic bipartisan support for both open trade together with strong worker re-employment assistance should be changed or broken," said Gene Sperling, director of Mr. Obama's National Economic Council.
But Republicans, for their part, described the administration's announcement as an "11th-hour demand" that threatens to derail consideration of the trade deals.
"The trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama have been held up by the administration for years and I was encouraged at the recent movement in the White House to act," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
"So it was more than surprising that the president's staff would again threaten to delay their implementation - particularly when the president himself agrees with us that these agreements will create jobs here in America. Our economy needs jobs and growth, not an ever-expanding list of reasons to delay the creation those jobs."
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