Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Friday that it’s unlikely that three key trade deals — with Colombia, South Korea and Panama — will make their way through Congress before the August recess.
A disagreement between congressional leaders and the White House over an assistance program for workers has held up the pacts.
In remarks on the Senate floor, McConnell said that he believed “every sticking point seems to have been resolved” on the trade deals, but that the tight calendar facing Congress makes it unlikely they will be taken up before lawmakers leave Washington in early August.
“I recognize that the calendar is tight,” McConnell said. “We’ve got a lot of other urgent business to take care of around here. So I don’t expect to finish any of this before August. Still, I think the administration should submit them anyway as a show of good faith with our trading allies in Korea, Colombia, and Panama. Then we can work to pass them when we return.”
Congressional leaders and the White House late last month announced a tentative accord on the deals, but progress has been delayed in part due to an impasse over the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which provides aid and retraining for workers who lost their jobs due to outsourcing. The program had been broadened in 2009 but that expansion expired in February.
At issue is whether the TAA renewal should be included with the South Korea deal, as congressional Democrats and the White House desire, or whether TAA legislation should be considered separately, the option preferred by most Republicans. The Senate Commerce Committee earlier this month approved a version of the deals including TAA, while the House Ways and Means Committee gave the green light to the trade pacts without including it.
The approval by the House and Senate committees is non-binding, however, and it’s up to the White House to submit to Congress the long-stalled deals, which were first negotiated under the Bush administration. So far the administration has not done so as an agreement on how to handle the TAA issue remains elusive.
McConnell said Friday that he is “committed” to working with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “to ensure a fair floor process for my members so they have an opportunity to try to amend a stand-alone Trade Adjustment Assistance bill separate from the three free trade agreements.”
“That way, if the administration can generate the votes it needs, the TAA bill will pass on its merits,” he said. “So I think we’ve got a pretty clear path in front of us at this point.”
McConnell was backed up Friday by a group of 12 Republican senators led by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) who sent a letter to Obama urging him to submit the deals “as soon as possible, with the understanding that the agreement meets the White House’s insistence that there is a way forward” on a separate TAA bill.
The senators pledged that they would vote “yes” to end debate on the TAA bill but added that “we believe that the trade agreements and TAA should receive separate up or down votes on their merits.”
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) applauded the move Friday, saying in a statement that “if the Administration formally sends up the agreements to Congress without TAA, I will formally mark up those agreements and TAA on the same day.”
Democrats and the White House contend that the deals and TAA must be considered together.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement Friday that “there has never been a question that TAA would have to pass in tandem with the free trade agreements and we are open to any serious path that achieves that outcome.
“These free trade agreements will create jobs and provide a major boost to our economy, but we need to make sure U.S. workers have all the resources to succeed in a global economy – and TAA is the way to do that,” he said.
A Senate Democratic aide said that Democrats would be in favor of moving forward if Republicans were able to guarantee that TAA would be enacted along with the trade agreements, noting that GOP members had blocked previous efforts to pass the trade adjustment assistance program on its own.