The White House and its Democratic allies had demanded that Congress renew the trade assistance program in order to move forward on the trade deals.
Congressional approval is by no means guaranteed, but passage of the deals would fulfill a plank of President Obama’s economic policy. Obama, who expressed skepticism as a candidate about free trade, has hailed the agreements as crucial to increasing U.S. sales overseas. Obama has called for a doubling of U.S. exports by 2015.
“These agreements will support tens of thousands of jobs here at home,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said after news of the Senate agreement.
Progress on the trade pacts comes as Obama shifts his attention to the country’s stalling economy after spending months negotiating a deal with Congress to raise the federal debt limit and curb government borrowing.
With jobs returning to the top of Obama’s agenda, he has been pushing measures to stimulate the economy, including the renewal of temporary tax breaks and funding for highway construction and other infrastructure, in addition to the trade deals. The trade agreements are especially attractive because they could help the economy without requiring more government spending.
The deals still face hurdles in the House. The White House and Democrats are continuing to negotiate the terms of a vote with Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who has said he plans to bring up for a vote the trade deals and the assistance program, known as TAA.
“While some sequencing details remain to be worked out, the speaker has now clearly committed to floor consideration of TAA, along with the trade agreements,” said Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for Kirk. “The Senate leaders’ agreement on a way forward is an important step on the path to submission of the pending agreements.”
The trade deals, which were engineered by President George W. Bush, have been held up repeatedly by an impasse between the two parties over a renewal of the assistance program.
Democrats and the White House have wanted legislation renewing the trade assistance program to be voted on along with the three trade deals. Republicans have insisted that they be considered separately.
In a joint statement released late Tuesday, Reid and McConnell said separate votes would be held, with the vote on the trade assistance program coming first. The program expired in February.
Reid backs the renewal of the trade assistance program but not the trade deals, which he fears will send American jobs overseas.
McConnell backs the trade pacts but not the assistance program.
In a statement, Reid said that discussions between his office and McConnell’s “have provided a path forward in the Senate after we return for passage.”
McConnell cheered the progress. “I have long supported passage of the long-delayed [trade agreements],” he said, “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 added that there is bipartisan support for the assistance program.
In the House, negotiators are still wrangling over what to vote on first.
“Senate leaders have cleared an important hurdle,” Boehner said. “Further delay of these job-creating trade bills is unacceptable.”
The announcement by Reid and McConnell came one day after both chambers began their August recesses. Last month, committees in both chambers approved separate versions of the trade pacts.
The Senate Finance Committee approved a version of the deals that included the trade assistance program; the House Ways and Means Committee separated the assistance program from the trade pacts.
The committee action is nonbinding, however, and the next procedural step on the trade deals is up to the White House, which must submit them to Congress for final approval.
Obama has worked hard to secure labor union support for the trade deals, arguing that companies in Colombia, South Korea and Panama already have open access to U.S. markets and that the deals would offer the same opportunity to U.S. companies.
The deal with South Korea was shaped by U.S. negotiators to win the support of autoworkers, who want to sell cars there. The deal with Colombia could face opposition from Democrats concerned about the nation’s human rights record.