Congressional Panels Debate Free Trade Bills

House and Senate committees are disagreeing over how to handle American workers laid off because of foreign competition and free trade.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- House and Senate committees are disagreeing over how to handle American workers laid off because of foreign competition as they take up legislation to implement long-pending free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

Both the Finance Committee in the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Ways and Means Committee in the Republican-led House will consider the three trade deals Thursday, which have drifted in political limbo since they were signed during the George W. Bush administration.

But while there's now bipartisan backing for congressional approval and the Barack Obama White House is urging Congress to act, division over a worker aid program threatens to derail the process.

The Finance Committee, at the request of the White House, combined the trade legislation with provisions to renew expired portions of Trade Adjustment Assistance, a half-century-old program of financial aid and retraining for displaced workers.

"We need to come together to move these three trade agreements and Trade Adjustment Assistance forward because American workers and small businesses simply cannot afford to wait any longer," Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said.

But the Ways and Means legislation does not mention the displaced worker program, a result of GOP insistence that the trade agreements should not be encumbered by a program that some Republicans say is too expensive and of questionable merit.

The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, said Republicans "continue to believe that adding TAA to the trade agreements is an abuse of longstanding trade rules."

House Republicans have said they are open to considering a Trade Adjustment Assistance bill separately, but it's not certain Republicans would gain enough Democratic votes to pass the trade bills on the House and Senate floors if the assistance program is not part of those bills.

Under the unique rules for considering trade bills, Finance and Ways and Means lawmakers on Thursday will offer recommendations on changing draft versions of legislation to implement the pacts. The White House, after further negotiations, then will submit final versions of the bills to Congress for votes, with no amendments allowed.

The three trade bills are predicted to increase U.S. farming and manufacturing exports by some $13 billion a year and create tens of thousands of jobs. But the Obama administration has held up on submitting the agreements to Congress while it reopened talks with the partner nations to increase access to South Korea for U.S. autos, persuade Panama to change laws that fostered tax havens, and prod Colombia to take action to stop violence against union groups.

There's now a sense of urgency in finalizing the agreements as South Korea implements a trade agreement with the European Union and Colombia and Canada prepare to put a trade deal into effect.

The Trade Adjustment Assistance program, first enacted in 1962, was expanded as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package to offer help to service industry workers and increase subsidies so laid-off workers can buy health insurance. Those expanded portions expired in February, and the White House and Democrats have pressed for their renewal.

Baucus, along with Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and the White House, worked out a compromise that provides somewhat less generous benefits for the displaced workers. Last year more than 200,000 workers made use of the program at a cost of almost $1 billion.

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