The U.S. Senate is set to begin debate today on trade preference and worker-aid programs that would clear the way for President Barack Obama to send Congress three pending free-trade agreements.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, plans to move ahead with legislation that would revive tariff preferences for goods from developing nations after lawmakers voted 84-8 last night to limit debate, the first step in the process of acting on the measures. Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, said he will offer an amendment that would extend the aid program for workers who lose their jobs to overseas competition.
Trade accords with South Korea, Colombia and Panama reached under President George W. Bush have stalled over disagreements tied to extending a program that helps workers who lose their jobs to overseas competition. Passing the aid, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, would meet a condition Obama set before he would send the trade deals to Congress.
The vote last night was “a real shot in the arm for the trade process,” Greg Mastel, a lobbyist and former chief of staff to Baucus, who heads the Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview. “I view this vote as a barometer of where things stand. A strong vote means good wind at their backs as they begin their work.”
The South Korea deal, the biggest for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, would boost U.S. exports by as much as $10.9 billion in the first year in which it’s in full effect, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission. The accord with Colombia would increase exports by as much as $1.1 billion a year.
Opposition to the trade-preferences program is led by Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, who wanted Congress to strip sleeping bags shipped from Bangladesh because the low-cost imports endanger jobs at competitor Exxel Outdoors Inc. in Haleyville, Alabama.
“I believe in free-trade, my voting record proves this,” Sessions said on the Senate floor. “But free-trade is not free if we allow ourselves to be exploited.”
Seven Republicans joined him in opposing the motion to proceed to the bill as most Republicans, including party leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, joined the Democrats on the procedural vote.
Trade preferences help “Americans keep their jobs by providing the low-cost inputs that U.S. manufacturers need,” Baucus said in his floor statement. Worker aid “helps Americans who lose their jobs get the skills they need to secure a new job,” he said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports both the trade preferences and worker aid, and passage of the free-trade agreements is among the top legislative priorities this year for the nation’s largest business lobby, Bruce Josten, the group’s chief lobbyist, wrote in a letter to the Senate yesterday.
McConnell plans to offer an amendment to renew “fast-track” authority, intended to require that Congress act on trade agreements within a limited time and without changes after the president submits them, his staff said yesterday. The authority expired after Democrats gained control of Congress under Bush in 2007.
Obama hasn’t requested the authority’s renewal. A push for it could “trigger an all-out ideological struggle over U.S. trade policy” in the current political climate, a Council on Foreign Relations panel that included former Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle and Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff under Bush, said in a report yesterday.
A “fast-track” amendment probably will fail because most Democrats oppose it and the party holds a majority of Senate seats, Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said last week. While Hatch opposes the worker aid, he said the program has enough support to pass both the Senate and House, easing the path for the Obama administration to submit the trade deals.
“It’s an important thing to get these three free-trade agreements passed,” Hatch said. “If you have to go through some amendments, let’s go through them. That’s not so difficult to do. That’s what this body is supposed to do. It’s time to face the music. You can’t win on these things without trying.”