Three long-stalled trade deals inched closer to passage late Wednesday after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that they had reached an agreement on moving forward with the pacts when Congress returns to Washington in September.
The deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama – a key component of the Obama administration’s plan to double U.S. exports by 2015 -- have been repeatedly held up over an impasse between the two parties over a renewal of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. The program provides aid and retraining to workers who have lost their jobs due to outsourcing.
Most Democrats and the White House want legislation renewing the TAA program, which expired in February, to be included along with the three trade deals. Republicans contend that the trade adjustment program should be considered separately from the trade pacts.
In a joint statement Tuesday, Reid – who backs the TAA renewal but not the trade deals — and McConnell — who backs the trade pacts but not TAA -- said that they had come to an agreement that would allow Congress first to act on the TAA renewal and then to move forward on the three trade agreements.
“My staff and Senator McConnell’s staff have been in discussions for weeks over the Trade Adjustment Assistance program and the three outstanding (free trade agreements),” Reid said in a statement. “We believe those discussions have provided a path forward in the Senate after we return for passage of the bipartisan compromise on the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, followed by passage of the three FTAs. I do not support movement on the FTAs, which I have never supported, until TAA has passed.”
McConnell said in a statement that he agreed with Reid “that we have a path forward on TAA and the Free Trade Agreements.”
“I have long supported passage of the long-delayed FTAs, and I know that I speak for many on my side of the aisle that we are eager to get moving and finally pass them,” he said. “Although I do not personally support TAA, I know there is bipartisan support for this program.”
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the top Republican on the Finance panel, also issued statements hailing the agreement by the two leaders.
“As the President has said, these agreements will support tens of thousands of jobs here at home, and the Administration looks forward to working with leaders of the Senate and House after Congress returns in September to secure approval of these important initiatives for America’s working families,” Kirk said.
Baucus called the agreement “a welcome step in the right direction,” and Boehner said that he “look(s) forward to the House passing the FTAs, in tandem with separate consideration of TAA legislation, as soon as possible.”
The announcement by Reid and McConnell — which came one day after both chambers began their August recess -- would appear to break an impasse that was reached after committees in both chambers last month approved separate versions of the trade pacts.
Baucus’s Senate Finance Committee earlier this month approved a version of the deals that included TAA, while Camp’s House Ways and Means Committee separated TAA from the trade pacts. The committees’ action is non-binding, however, and the next procedural step on the deals is up to the White House, which must submit the Bush-era deals to Congress for final approval.