Disagreements, including among Republicans, over how to handle legislation renewing trade adjustment assistance (TAA) for displaced workers continued to delay congressional ratification of free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
Although Republicans in both the House and Senate agree that the worker-assistance program should be considered separately from the trade agreements, they differ on which procedures to implement. House Republicans currently are considering holding separate votes on TAA and the South Korean trade agreement before combining them and sending the complete package to the Senate. But Senate Republicans want the TAA measure tied to the renewal of the president’s Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which allows so-called "fast-track" ratification of negotiated trade agreements without amendments.
If Congress and the Obama administration do not agree on a procedure soon, the White House is expected to send the trade agreements to Congress with TAA included as part of the South Korea pact. Attaching TAA to the Korea deal would protect the worker program under fast-track trade procedures, thereby getting votes on both sides of the aisle, and ensuring that Congress votes on the pacts within 90 days.
Both the House and Senate committees of jurisdiction conduced "mock markups" of the bills last week. The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., voted 13-11 along party lines to approve the U.S.-South Korea free trade accord with extension of expanded TAA attached. An attempt by ranking member Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to attach an amendment to strike the TAA provisions -- which he repeatedly referred to as a "dubious domestic spending program" -- was rejected by an 11-13 party-line vote. The Senate committee also approved the U.S.-Colombia agreement by an 18-6 margin. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., was among those voting against the Colombia accord after the committee refused to adopt amendments that would require that nation to comply with the labor action plan agreed to with the Obama administration. The U.S.-Panama agreement was approved by a 22-2 vote, with Stabenow and Sen. John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the only negative votes.
Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., voted 22-15 along party lines to approve the U.S.-South Korea pact without attaching the TAA language. The House committee also voted 22-15 in favor of draft implementation language for the U.S.-Panama trade deal, and 22-14 to approve the U.S.-Colombia agreement. Camp said his committee would consider TAA at the same time as the three trade pacts. House Democrats fear that a separate TAA bill would not pass in the Senate unless it is attached in some way to the South Korea accord.
Baucus and Camp had negotiated an agreement with the Obama administration on renewing TAA through the end of 2013. Under the agreement, TAA would continue to be available to service workers, and displaced workers would receive a 72.5 percent tax credit to compensate for out-of-pocket health care costs -- down from the 80 percent level granted under the 2009 economic stimulus law that expired in February, but greater than the 65 percent that existed previously. The package also contained reforms to unemployment insurance and a reduction in the number of weeks displaced workers would receive TAA support -- down to 117 weeks from the 156 weeks that was granted in the economic stimulus law. But the agreement did not specify the procedure Congress would use to reauthorize TAA, leading to the current spat.
The mock markup is a traditional step taken by congressional committees with jurisdiction over trade agreements so that members of Congress can express views prior to the formal submission of implementing legislation by the White House. Once the final legislative language is submitted, Congress as part of the president’s trade promotion authority (previously known as "fast-track," which was in effect at the time the three trade agreements were reached in 2006 and 2007 during the Bush administration) has 90 days to either approve or reject them, without opportunity for amendment.
As procedural negotiations continue, both congressional leaders and the administration say their goal is to complete action on the trade legislation before Aug. 6, when Congress is scheduled to begin its month-long summer recess.