Senate panel takes up stalled trade pacts

WASHINGTON — The Senate Finance Committee will take up three long-stalled free trade agreements Thursday after committee chairman Max Baucus said agreement had been reached on extending a program that helps American workers displaced by foreign trade.

Baucus said Tuesday that his committee would consider trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, all pending since the George W. Bush administration, as well as extending expired sections of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, a worker retraining program that the Obama White House and Democrats have insisted must be part of a trade package.

Republican leaders have said they are willing to consider extending the TAA program but not as part of a free trade agreement. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he would oppose any trade deal in which TAA was embedded.

The top Republican on the Finance Committee, Orrin Hatch of Utah, said the "highly partisan decision" to include TAA "risks support for this critical job-creating trade pact in the name of a welfare program of questionable benefit at a time when our nation is broke."

Baucus, however, was optimistic, saying the three trade deals, together with TAA, "will boost our economy by billions of dollars and create new jobs and opportunities here at home."

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president "embraces these critical elements of TAA needed to ensure" that workers can get good jobs. "Now is the time to move forward with TAA and with the Korea, Colombia and Panama trade agreements."

Obama frequently cites the three trade pacts as deals that would boost the U.S. economy, in part by making overseas markets more widely available to American companies.

The assistance program was expanded two years ago as part of Obama's stimulus package to include aid for more displaced workers, but the expansion expired in February. Baucus said his proposal — which makes TAA benefits available to service as well as manufacturing industries, provides money for retraining and makes affordable health care available — would be extended through the end of 2013.

The U.S. signed the trade pacts with South Korea, Panama and Colombia in 2007. But the then-Democratic-led Congress never brought the agreements up for vote, giving the Obama administration time to renegotiate areas it found objectionable.

U.S. trade officials spent months negotiating outstanding issues on the pacts, reaching an agreement with South Korea in December. The pact would support up to 70,000 U.S. jobs, according to the administration.

Deals were struck this spring with Panama and Colombia, though all three agreements need congressional approval before they can be implemented.

The top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, Sander Levin of Michigan, said Monday that he would oppose the trade agreement with Colombia if it did not include specific language committing Colombia to carry out an action plan for protecting worker rights and ending violence against union organizers.

Suppression of worker rights in Colombia has been the main reason that many Democrats, labor groups and human rights groups have opposed the Colombia deal, which according to some estimates would boost the U.S. economy by $2.5 billion a year.