Deal near on trade agreements, worker aid

The Obama administration and congressional leaders are nearing consensus on three pending trade agreements and the renewal of support for workers who have been displaced by global trade, ending a standoff that some feared would put U.S. exports at risk, said business, administration and congressional officials close to the discussions.

Free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama have become a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s efforts to boost U.S. sales overseas, a foray into trade politics by a president who, as a candidate, expressed skepticism about the benefits of prior free trade pacts. The Korea deal is expected to generate more than $10 billion in additional annual sales for U.S. companies.

But the controversy over the U.S. deficit has stalled the deals, with Republicans opposing renewal of the billion-dollar-a-year Trade Adjustment Assistance program. The Obama administration has said it would not submit the trade pacts unless the assistance program is reauthorized to help workers hurt by outsourcing or increased imports.

After weeks of talks, however, “they are within striking distance of a deal,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue said at a news conference Wednesday morning — an assessment shared by administration and congressional officials familiar with the negotiations.

None of those involved would provide details of a possible deal. But support among congressional Democrats and the White House for the trade assistance program has been widespread, and Don­o­hue suggested that Republican opposition to the program was narrower than suspected.

He said that a recent Republican Study Committee letter opposing Trade Adjustment Assistance drew only 11 signatures and that dozens in the class of GOP freshmen had endorsed approval of the free trade pacts.

The Chamber has been lobbying for approval of the three agreements and also supports the assistance program. Donohue said the Chamber is “optimistic” that the trade agreements can be in place by July 1 — when a separate agreement between the European Union and South Korea takes effect, potentially putting U.S. exporters at a disadvantage.

A House subcommittee is expected to begin reviewing the agreements next week. Carole Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, said the administration is “hopeful” that an agreement over the trade adjustment program can be reached “in the near future.”

Congressional approval is by no means guaranteed. All three agreements are holdovers from the Bush administration, whose trade policies President Obama criticized on the campaign trail as damaging to U.S. workers.

He has tread carefully on the issue, renegotiating provisions of the agreements to, in his administration’s view, make them more beneficial to U.S. companies and employees.

In the case of Korea, the new provisions won critical backing from U.S. auto companies and the United Auto Workers union, who say the renegotiated deal would open South Korea’s homebound auto industry to more U.S. exports.

The agreement with Colombia could be more divisive to the president’s political base. As part of the deal, Colombia agreed to take steps to combat chronic violence against union organizers, providing more police and prosecutors to investigate anti-union crime, and making it easier for unions to organize.

While Kirk said this week that the country had taken the steps promised in April, U.S. labor groups were hosting a delegation of Colombian trade unionists in Washington to lobby against the deal.

George Kohl, senior director of the Communications Workers of America, said it will take time to determine whether the changes being made by the Colombian government make a difference in the environment for labor organizers. Until then, he said, the administration and Congress should hold off on the free-trade agreement.

“Lets have real proof, not promises of proof,” Kohl said.

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