U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said on Tuesday he is optimistic Congress will pass free trade pacts with Colombia, South Korea and Panama shortly after lawmakers return in September from a month-long recess.
President Barack Obama had hoped to win approval of the three agreements before the August break but Republicans balked at a White House plan to include an extension of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program for displaced workers in the implementing legislation for the South Korea pact.
“We believe we have a framework for an agreement that will allow us very quickly when Congress reconvenes in September to approve and have a vote on Trade Adjustment Assistance and allow us to move forward with passage of the free trade agreements at the same time,” Kirk said in a speech.
Kirk said the Obama administration had been working with congressional leaders in both parties to find a path forward on TAA and the trade pacts, telling reporters after the speech there were still a few more details to nail down.
Republicans demanded a separate vote on TAA, which provides retraining and income assistance for workers who lost jobs due to trade. Many Democrats fear Republican foes of TAA will kill the program if it is not shielded by the South Korea pact.
Democrats say TAA is a vital part of the U.S. social safety net but many Republicans question its effectiveness and cost.
The White House has insisted on renewal of TAA in conjunction with the trade pacts, although it did agree on a package of reforms to scale back the program from levels approved in the 2009 economic stimulus bill.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said last week his party’s lawmakers would not block a vote on TAA but that it would be up to the Obama administration to rally enough votes to protect the program from hostile amendments.
McConnell also has pressed for a separate vote on Trade Promotion Authority, which would give the White House authority to negotiate new trade deals it could present to Congress for straight yes-or-no votes.
“We’re still working with the leadership to come up with the kind of specifics of how we’d sequence that,” Kirk said.
But the proposed framework “would allow us to get a vote on TAA,” give McConnell a chance to make his case for Trade Promotion Authority and “give us a chance to move” the free trade agreements, he added.