- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Senate on Thursday took a big step toward passing three long-delayed trade agreements, approving a controversial program that was holding up the pacts.

Democrats and Republicans voted 70-27 to an extension of a 2009 Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) package that will continue to help American workers who have lost their jobs to companies moving overseas. The retraining and income assistance program, which ran out in February, covers more workers and offers greater health insurance benefits than the original version from decades ago.

Now, the House will vote on the bill.

This will pave the way for the White House to send to Congress for prompt passage three trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. The trade deals are expected to increase U.S. exports by about $13 billion a year, while creating thousands of jobs.

“This program ensures that our workers are not demoralized by unemployment, but that they are energized by the hope of again standing on their own two feet,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat.

The White House and Congressional Democrats changed directions and began supporting the trade deals earlier this year. Republicans have been pushing for the agreements for half a decade, since the Bush administration first negotiated them.

But new roadblocks have continued to stall passage of the trade agreements that both parties now support.

Most recently, the White House tried to tack on TAA. Democrats embraced the idea. But Republicans, who thought it cost too much, initially balked at the notion, eventually giving in after they realized it was the only way to get the trade deals passed.

The Senate took the first step in confirming the bipartisan agreement with its vote Thursday. The bill will now go to the House, where Speaker John A. Boehner, of Ohio, has urged fellow Republicans to take a hit on TAA for the greater good.

If the bill is approved in that chamber, the White House plans to send the trade agreements to Congress for a final vote. At that point, both parties and chambers are expected to vote in favor of the trade deals.

This isn’t the only problem that has delayed the trade deals. Now resolved, Democrats wanted to send the trade deals to Congress separately, while Republicans wanted to vote on them all at once.

Democrats also expressed concerns over Colombia’s labor environment and tax reporting issues with Panama.

But TAA appears to be the only remaining roadblock.

TAA was agreed to in the Senate, and is expected to pass in the House, but Republicans aren’t going away quietly.

“TAA’s an unproven, costly and unproductive program,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican.

“As the program is expanded to include more and more people and entities … the myth that trade is bad for the American worker finds ready fodder and continues to build,” he added. “Instead of helping build the case for trade, TAA certifications are used to show that trade is bad.”

With the party pushing for spending cuts, they fear this program will cost too much. The 2009 version, passed as part of the economic stimulus package, ran up to about $2.1 billion, but this version will cost about $900 million over three years. It extends through 2013.

Republicans hesitantly agreed to TAA after negotiating some of the costs down. The number of weeks displaced workers can receive income support dropped to 117 from 156 in the most recent update to the program. The health insurance credit will also be scaled back to 72.5 percent from 80 percent last time around.

Republicans have begrudgingly agreed to these numbers.

“We should authorize it at pre-stimulus levels and not one dollar more,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

“The White House asked for a path forward … and we gave it to them,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell added. “I can’t say I’m happy about that.”

Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, then called for trust from the White House to finally send the agreements to Congress. “Now it’s the president’s turn,” he said. “No more moving the goal post, no more excuses.”

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said trust goes both ways, the central problem that has led to long delays in the trade agreements.

“We have to make sure that the House also passes this,” the Nevada Democrat said. “I’m hopeful and confident they will.”

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