Congress moves forward on free trade deals

@CNNMoney June 29, 2011: 8:32 AM ET
If Congress passes the trade pacts without the jobs retraining program, President Obama would face a tough choice as he had previously said he couldn't have one without the other.

If Congress passes the trade pacts without the jobs retraining program, President Obama would face a tough choice as he had previously said he couldn't have one without the other.

WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) -- The Senate will officially take up three trade deals and a scaled-back version of a jobs retraining program for laid-off workers on Thursday.

Senate negotiators will have to start pounding out the details of the trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, as well as funding for the jobs retraining program -- whose funding ran dry in February.

"This was truly a bipartisan negotiation on all sides ... we think this is a strong package that reflected the different priorities," said one senior administration official on a call with reporters Tuesday.

But final passage on all the measures is not a done deal. Republican support depends on how closely the trade deals and jobs retraining program are linked together.

Republicans want to vote on the trade pacts, and have agreed to consider the new compromise that would extend the jobs retraining program, according to congressional aides. But they refuse to have the issues stuck together on the same bill, in a way that would prevent them from making changes to the jobs retraining program.

"I would strongly urge the Administration to re-think this action, and urge them to send up all three pending trade agreements without delay -- and without extraneous poison pills included," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a statement Tuesday.

If Congress were to pass the trade pacts without the jobs retraining program, President Obama would face a tough choice as he had previously said he couldn't have one without the other.

At issue is the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which got a big funding boost with the 2009 economic Recovery Act.

The program gives unemployed workers financial help and job training when employers move jobs overseas. White House officials had previously said that more than 435,000 workers would be eligible for the program if it were reinstated. But Republicans have said they are concerned about funding such stimulus programs, because of the big deficits the nation faces.

A White House official outlined a compromise made on the program, saying it would be scaled back. He added that it wouldn't add to the deficit, thanks to cuts in unemployment insurance; and due to a new proposal that would penalize tax preparers who have "bad records," claiming tax credits for those who don't qualify.

But the White House couldn't give a final tab on Tuesday for the scaled back Trade Adjustment Assistance program.

An additional roadblock is that even though House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. David Camp was involved in the compromise, it's unclear whether even a scaled-back version could pass the GOP-controlled House.

"We're pleased the President may finally send us the three job-creating trade agreements we've requested, but we have long said that TAA -- even this scaled-back version -- should be dealt with separately from the trade agreements," said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.

The one thing many congressional Republicans and Democrats can agree on is wanting to pass the trade deals to help boost the U.S. economy, particularly since some say the treaties could add as many as 250,000 jobs.

Despite Obama's effort to tie the trade pacts to something the unions want, the AFL-CIO and other labor groups continue to oppose the treaties -- which they say don't do enough to protect workers' rights.

But business groups from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Business Roundtable applauded the move forward.

"With our economic recovery stalling, the time is now for Congress to act on these deals," said Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber. "We simply cannot afford to put American jobs at risk any longer."  To top of page

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