WASHINGTON: A top Republican lawmaker on Thursday backed a compromise to push ahead a stalled trade deal with South Korea, but he faced opposition within his own party as a senator threatened to block it.
Leading lawmakers of President Barack Obama's Democratic Party and the rival Republicans both broadly support the substance of the Korea deal, which would slash 95 per cent of tariffs in the largest US free trade pact in a generation.
But Senate Republicans voiced anger that Obama plans to submit the agreement attached to a renewal of benefits for workers who lost jobs due to foreign competition, saying he is trying to please unions that oppose the Korea deal.
Representative Dave Camp, a Republican from Michigan who heads the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, defended a compromise he reached last week with the White House, saying he secured “significant reforms” to the workers' aid.
Camp said the aid, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA, would be fully offset by spending cuts. While denying an agreement to link the aid and trade agreement, he offered to move ahead on both measures if submitted separately.
“Despite questions about how the House, Senate and administration proceed on TAA, one thing is perfectly clear: we cannot afford to let these trade agreements languish any longer,” Camp told a hearing.
“The rest of the world is fast moving forward, and we risk losing market share and jobs if we fail to act,” he said. A free trade agreement between South Korea and the European Union, negotiated after the US deal, took effect last week.
But Senate Republicans are strongly against an extension of the trade assistance. After boycotting a committee session last week, the Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully Thursday to delink the workers' aid and trade agreement.
“I support the South Korea trade agreement implementing bill and want it to pass. I strongly support it,” said Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Democratic-led Senate Finance Committee.
“But I cannot condone this abuse of Trade Promotion Authority or turn a blind eye to dubious domestic spending programs,” Hatch said, referring to the president's power to submit trade deals without potential changes by Congress.
The administration is also asking Congress to move forward on trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, which are smaller and more controversial among Democrats due to concerns over human rights in the two nations.
The Obama team renegotiated the Korea free trade agreement, originally sealed under President George W. Bush, and won over the support of key opponents including automakers and the United Autoworkers trade union.
But the AFL-CIO, the main US labor confederation and key Democratic base, remains opposed. It rejects Obama's projection that the Korea deal would support 70,000 US jobs and says that corporations would be the main winners.
A Democratic-led Congress in 2009 ramped up the Trade Adjustment Assistance by making hundreds of thousands of workers in the service industry eligible for benefits and retraining if their jobs are threatened by foreign trade.
The program cost dollar 1.1 billion in the last fiscal year but the expansion expired after Republicans won 2010 congressional elections. Under the proposed compromise, the aid would be restored, but with cuts, through 2013.
Senator Max Baucus, the Democratic head of the Senate Finance Committee who negotiated the deal with Camp and the White House, said he was open to new options on process but supported both the aid and the trade deals.
“American workers must have the assurance that a TAA program that meets their needs in today's economy will be available when Congress votes on these FTAs,” Baucus said.