Baucus Says Worker Aid Is Prerequisite for Free-Trade Pacts

Congress must extend lapsed provisions aiding workers when acting on three pending free-trade agreements, officials from President Barack Obama’s administration and Democratic senators said.

The administration wants Congress to approve those extended benefits, as lawmakers did in 2009, for workers who lose their job because of overseas competition, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro said today. The provisions expired this year for services workers, and demanding a renewal as lawmakers consider trade agreements may complicate or delay those pacts.

“It’s clear that we need trade-adjustment assistance to be enacted along with” the free-trade agreements, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana said today at a hearing on a pending deal with Colombia. “The two must go together, one way or another. We have to find a way so that they both are passed this year.”

Obama inherited deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama from the administration of President George W. Bush, and reworked provisions in each. Administration and congressional staff members began negotiating the legal texts for those agreements last week and will soon seek action by Congress.

Republican leaders say they back those free-trade deals, too, while worrying about the cost of approving further aid to laid-off workers.

“I don’t think the current funding level is sustainable,” said Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who helped negotiate the 2009 legislation that extended trade adjustment assistance.

2007 Agreement

Republicans agreed in May 2007 with a new Democratic House majority to rework labor and environment provisions in deals with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea. Grassley said that agreement was meant to lead to approval for all four deals, which hasn’t happened.

Now, with demands on trade-adjustment assistance, “I see the possibility of more goal-post moving,” Grassley said.

Sapiro said that the administration has the goal of submitting the three free-trade agreements before Congress takes a recess in August. In addition to the worker-aid program, Colombia “still has important work to accomplish” before that deal can be submitted for a vote, she said.

The trade-assistance program augments health and unemployment benefits to workers who lose their jobs because of competition from overseas competition. As part of the stimulus bill in 2009, it was expanded to include service workers such as call-center employees, who accounted for more than half of the 280,000 people aided last year, according to data from the Labor Department. Those added benefits expired in February.

‘Done By Now’

The reauthorization of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program “should have been done by now,” said Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and business groups joined Democrats in pushing for the program’s renewal.

“We urge Congress and the administration to find a way forward to ensure that the United States has in place an effective TAA program to support U.S. global economic engagement,” the business groups wrote in a letter to the congressional leadership on May 2.

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