Four GOP Senators Say They Will Vote Against Korea FTA In Committee

Doug Palmer, Reuters (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's plan to win approval of U.S. free trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama faces its first test on Thursday as the Senate Finance Committee takes up the measures. Republicans typically supply most of the votes for free trade agreements. But at least four of the 11 Republicans on the panel say they will vote against the South Korea deal if the White House sticks to a plan to include in the implementing legislation renewal of a retraining program for U.S. workers who lose their job because of foreign competition. Those opponents include the panel's top Republican, Senator Orrin Hatch, who is up for re-election next year and is under pressure from the Tea Party conservative movement to take a tough line on spending. Aides said Republican Senators Jon Kyl, John Thune and Tom Coburn would vote against the South Korea pact if the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, or TAA, is included in the bill, while other Republicans on the panel are considering that. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, also wants a separate vote on the retraining program. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has called TAA renewal a "poison pill" that could kill the South Korea trade deal if included in the implementing bill. The hard line frustrates Democratic supporters of the trade deals who argue that the worker retraining program has long had broad bipartisan support and note that Republicans have spent the first 2 1/2 years of Obama's presidency demanding action on the trade pacts. Obama is defying many members of his own party in seeking congressional approval of the three trade pacts and needs the renewal of the working retraining program to appeal to fellow Democrats who are concerned about Americans losing jobs as a result of the trade agreements. The three agreements together are expected to boost U.S. exports by about $13 billion, which Obama has said will help create tens of thousands of new American jobs. The trade deals with South Korea and Panama were signed four years ago during the administration of former Republican President George W. Bush, while it has been nearly five years since the Colombia deal was signed. A trade deal between the European Union and South Korea goes into force on Friday and another between Canada and Colombia in August, putting pressure on Congress to act. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in letter to Hatch and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, said it strongly supported both the trade deals and renewal of TAA, as well as two trade programs for developing countries included the Senate draft version of the Colombia implementing bill. "A U.S. Chamber study has warned that the United States would lose more than 380,000 jobs and $40 billion in export sales if the pending agreements suffer further delays," said R. Bruce Josten, the group's executive vice president. 'THEY HAVE THE VOTES' Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said he expects plenty of fiery rhetoric from Republicans during the Finance Committee session to vote on non-binding amendments to a draft version of bills to implement the three pacts. But Schott said he expected all three trade deals to pass, possibly by the end of July, after a bumpy ride through the Senate and the House. "It seems to me the decision to go forward basically means that they figured they have the votes," Schott said. The Finance Committee session, and a similar one expected next week in the House Ways and Means Committee, gives lawmakers an opportunity to help shape the final bills Obama is expected to send to Congress in July. The trade deals cannot be amended once Obama formally submits them for votes. Many of Obama's fellow Democrats, who controlled Congress during the last two years of Bush's presidency, oppose trade agreements, which they blame for killing manufacturing jobs in the United States. To reduce that opposition, Obama negotiated more favorable auto provisions in the Korean agreement, signed a tax information exchange treaty with Panama and concluded an action plan with Colombia to address longstanding concerns about anti-union violence in the Andean country. However, many Democrats are upset that the Colombia labor action plan is not part of the formal implementing legislation for that trade deal. Representative John Larson, head of the House Democratic Caucus, said on Thursday he "would actively oppose the (Colombia) legislation in its current form." Obama angered Republicans in May when he said he would not send the pacts to Congress for votes until there was a deal to renew an expanded version of TAA, which provides retraining and income assistance for U.S. workers who have lost their jobs because of foreign competition. The program was broadened in 2009 to cover more workers and provide more generous healthcare assistance. But those new benefits expired early this year and House Republicans, fresh from their victory at the polls in November, balked at renewing them after the conservative group Club for Growth came out in opposition. Republicans want a separate vote on TAA even though one of their leaders -- House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp -- helped negotiate the scaled-down two-year extension TAA in the Senate draft bill to implement the South Korea deal. Camp says he won a number of significant concessions from the White House. Those include reducing the number of weeks for income support and making it harder for workers to get income support if they are not receiving training. The reforms also reduce the healthcare coverage tax credit and deny eligibility for public sector workers, a group added to the program in the 2009 expansion. Barney Keller, a spokesman for Club for Growth, said the group remained opposed to TAA but supported the three free trade agreements. It believes lawmakers should have the chance to vote on each initiative separately, Keller said. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the scaled-back TAA program negotiated by Camp, Baucus and the White House was "respectful of the difficult fiscal circumstances facing our country, and we believe it deserves support." Read original post here.