By JIM ABRAMS
WASHINGTON (AP) - Three free trade agreements that have spent
years in political limbo could finally be on a path toward
congressional action with a Senate vote Thursday to assure that
American workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition can get
retraining and aid.
As part of a plan carefully orchestrated with the White House,
the Senate voted 70-27 to renew expired portions of Trade
Adjustment Assistance, a Kennedy-era program that helps those
adversely affected by trade with financial support while they learn
new job skills.
While the logistics have yet to be worked out, that sets up the
White House formally submitting the trade agreements with South
Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress for a final vote. House
Speaker John Boehner has pledged that he will take up the TAA
worker aid bill in tandem with the three trade treaties.
Boehner, in a statement, said that if Obama submits the trade
agreements promptly, "I'm confident that all four bills can be
signed into law by mid-October."
The bill, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus,
D-Mont., both "addresses our countries most urgent priority,
jobs," and will "clear the path to consider and approve our
free-trade agreements" with the three countries.
All three deals were signed during the George W. Bush
presidency, but the Obama administration sought changes, including
winning more access to the South Korean market for U.S. automakers
and determining that Colombia was doing more to assure worker
rights and end violence against labor organizers.
More recently, with jobs dominating the political landscape,
Obama and Democrats have insisted that the worker aid program be
extended as a condition for taking up the free trade pacts. While
many Republicans are critical of the TAA program, some agreed to go
along so that the trade agreements can finally be completed.
"Both parties in the Senate have acted in good faith to move
this process forward," said Senate Republican leader Mitch
McConnell, R-Ky. "Now it's the president's turn."
In a rare instance of concurrence, both Obama and Republicans
have made the trade treaties a part of their jobs agenda, saying
that once in effect they will increase U.S. exports by some $13
billion a year and support tens of thousands of jobs.
The Senate vote Thursday extends some benefits that were added
to the TAA program as part of the stimulus act but which expired
last February. The 2009 additions included more money for
retraining and increased unemployment support and health insurance
subsidies. They also extended eligibility to public sector and
service industry workers and farmers, and to workers affected by
trade with countries that don't have free trade agreements with the
United States, such as China and India.
After GOP objections that these additions doubled the cost of
the program, which had been operating at about $1 billion a year,
Baucus and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp,
R-Mich., reached a compromise that trimmed some of the 2009
Public sector workers will no longer be eligible and
unemployment benefits were reduced. The health insurance tax credit
was cut from 80 percent in 2009 to 72.5 percent. Sen. Bob Casey,
D-Pa., a sponsor of the compromise, said the 10-year cost would be
The vote was still a difficult one for some Republicans. The
pro-trade U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has close ties to the
GOP, urged senators to vote for the TAA bill, saying their votes
will be part of the chamber's annual scorecard of how lawmakers
vote on key issues. Similarly, the conservative Club for Growth,
calling TAA "duplicative, inequitable and inappropriate," said
lawmakers should vote 'no' and reminded them that the vote will be
part of their annual scorecard.
Democrats, while split on the trade agreements, were solidly
behind the TAA extension, and the AFL-CIO asked senators to vote
for the compromise and against any amendments that might modify or
weaken the TAA program.
Republicans offered amendments during the week to restrict the
benefits outlined in the compromise, but they were all rejected,
mainly along party lines.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said TAA overlapped with some 47
employment and training programs operating across nine federal
agencies. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in questioning the eligibility
criteria for TAA, noted that employees at Solyndra, the California
solar panel company that went bankrupt despite a $535 million
federal loan guarantee, were applying for TAA benefits.
"Perhaps the most egregious aspect is voting to spend more
taxpayer dollars on an expanded domestic spending program of
dubious value" at a time when Congress is trying to bring the
deficit under control, Hatch said.
But Casey, citing Labor Department figures, said that in the
two-year period from May 2009, some 186,000 of the 447,000 workers
certified as eligible for TAA benefits qualified under the expanded
2009 act. "That is relevant because it was helping folks to be
retrained, helping them to get the skills they need for a new
career ... during the worst economic catastrophe in 100 years,
other than the Great Depression."
The TAA provisions were attached to a largely non-controversial
trade bill that extends a program called the General System of
Preferences. That program allows some 130 developing countries to
ship 4,800 products, mostly raw materials and components, to the
United States without paying duties.
The Senate also rejected, on a 48-48 vote, an amendment by Sen.
John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would have compelled the administration
to sell new F-16 fighters to Taiwan. The administration on
Wednesday announced a $5.85 billion package to upgrade Taiwan's
existing fleet of F-16s, but said the request for new planes was
still under consideration.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)