WASHINGTON: US Senate leaders voiced hope Thursday at ratifying long-stalled free trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama after agreeing to separate the votes from an unrelated point of contention.
President Barack Obama and the rival Republican Party both support the free trade agreement with South Korea, which would end 95 pe rcent of tariffs in the largest such pact for the United States in nearly two decades.
But with some labor supporters upset over the deal, Obama's Democratic Party linked ratification to the renewal of assistance to workers - angering Republicans who control the House of Representatives.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said that after weeks of talks the two parties had agreed to a vote on the workers' aid followed by separate votes on the three free trade agreements.
Reid and top Republican Senator Mitch McConnell both said in statements that they had found a “path forward.” I have long supported passage of the long-delayed FTAs, and I know that I speak for many on my side of the aisle that we are eager to get moving and finally pass them,” McConnell said.
House Speaker John Boehner said he hoped his chamber would approve the trade deals “as soon as possible” and also promised “separate consideration” of the workers' aid, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA.
A Democratic-led Congress ramped up the assistance program in 2009 by making hundreds of thousands of workers in the service industry eligible for benefits and retraining if their jobs were threatened by foreign trade.
The program cost dollar 1.1 billion in the last fiscal year but its expansion expired after Republicans won 2010 congressional elections. The Obama administration earlier said it had reached a compromise with a senior Republican to restore the aid, albeit with cuts, through 2013.
Reid voiced confidence at the “passage of the bipartisan compromise” on the aid. But with separate votes now planned, it remains to be seen whether Republicans will allow the program's renewal.
Representative Sandy Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee and a key player on trade policy, was cautious about the agreement between the Senate leaders.
“The path forward in the House as well as the Senate must be ironclad in its assurance that TAA will be renewed, otherwise TAA should be attached to the Korea FTA,” Levin said.
Conservative Republicans flexed their muscle in recent talks on avoiding a debt default, with Obama on Tuesday signing a last-minute deal that will cut at least dollar 2.1 trillion in government spending.
The Obama team renegotiated the Korea free trade agreement, originally sealed in 2007 under President George W. Bush, and won over the support of key opponents, including automakers and the United Auto Workers trade union.
But the AFL-CIO, the main US labor confederation and key Democratic base, remains opposed. It rejects Obama's projection that the Korea deal would support 70,000 US jobs and says that corporations would be the main winners.
While key lawmakers have voiced support for the South Korea free trade deal, the agreements with Colombia and Panama remain more controversial with Democrats concerned about the rights of labor unions.
“Colombia is still the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist,” said Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO.