Senate passes worker aid bill tied to delayed trade deals

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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.

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