White House threatens to hold up key trade deals

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House is threatening to hold up final passage of three coveted free trade agreements unless lawmakers expand retraining assistance for American workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition.

The move comes as administration officials begin talks on Capitol Hill to finalize the agreements the White House reached to expand trade with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. President Barack Obama has said the deals are an integral part of his economic agenda, and the pacts have broad Republican support.

While administration officials have long said they supported expanding the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, or TAA, Monday's announcement was the first time aides said they would be willing to delay the deals without it.

"We will not submit the FTAs without an agreement on an enhanced TAA," said Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council. "But we also believe we can work on congressional leadership to get that accomplished."

The assistance program was expanded two years ago as part of Obama's stimulus package to include aid for more displaced workers, but the expansion expired in February. Labor unions and some key Democratic lawmakers have demanded the expansion as a condition for supporting the trade deals.

While Republicans have typically been supportive of the TAA program, several GOP lawmakers have expressed concerns that the level of spending under the 2009 expansion is no longer sustainable given the Capitol Hill negotiations on debt and deficit.

Administration officials said Monday they did not have an estimate for how much it would cost to renew the assistance program. Sperling said the administration is working with Congress on ways to fund the program so it doesn't add to the deficit.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said the administration's decision to link the trade deals with the assistance program was "hugely disappointing."

"With our economy struggling and our nation broke, it's time to stop the excuses and give our exporters fair access to international markets," Hatch said in a statement.

The White House and Republicans had appeared to have a breakthrough on trade earlier this month when the administration started informal talks with congressional staff on the three trade deals. The talks are the first step toward the final ratification process.

The administration wanted lawmakers to pass the South Korea deal, the largest of the three, first while it negotiated outstanding issues with Colombia and Panama. But Republicans demanded the White House send all three agreements together, threatening to block the confirmation of a new commerce secretary and any trade-related nominees if that didn't happen.

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James Hrusovszky    
Arizona  |  May, 17, 2011 at 02:33 PM

The current administration simply does not get it. These free trade agreements will help stimulate business in their own accord thus helping our current economic situation. You cannot keep throwing money at it, especially when you do not have it, and expect it to solve the problem. Losing out to foreign competition is largely in part by taxation on US business that foreign companies do not have to contend with, thus allowing for them to produce at less cost. We need incentives for businesses to keep and set up shop here in the US and pay people a fair price for the work they perform, versus allowing the unions to command pay that keeps us from being competitive. The way I see it is we have two choices. Work together and figure it out, most likely each of us having to give concessions or allow it to continue down the current path we are on and at the end of the day, quite possibly, have nothing at all!

Maxine Jones    
Midland, SD  |  May, 21, 2011 at 01:01 PM

Thanks for keeping us well informed of shenanigans in W,DC. I like the previous comments, except that I believe NO ONE could be that ill informed. Pres. O. has stated many times that the USA needs to be brought down to bring other nations up. That is irresponsible. Punishing success does not grow wealth anywhere in the world! Honesty and freedom with reasonable laws beget prosperity. Also, "fair price for work" has to be dependent to the value of the work performed. Too many who demand "sustainable", or "living" wages do not consider that the work has to produce enough income to run the company and pay those wages. We need more, and better, businessmen in Congress and other positions of governmental power. We need people who have had to sign checks on the front, and make a business pay it's way, not pro,fessional bureaucrats!!!

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