White House, Congress Creep Closer to Trade Deal

The White House and Congress are inching toward compromise on a deal that could allow a vote on trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama in September, but the fractious state of Congress still threatens progress.

Congressional Republicans and Obama administration trade officials say they are working on a highly orchestrated plan for renewing the controversial Trade Adjustment Assistance program after Congress returns from its month long august recess.

That could pave the way for a vote on the three trade agreements in the fall.

But aides to Senate Democrats and the administration caution that a final deal isn't agreed yet.

The TAA program, as it is called, provides training and extended unemployment benefits for workers laid off as a result of trade-related shifts in production.

The program, which costs about $1 billion annually, has existed for 50 years with bipartisan support.

But this year it was targeted by Republican budget hawks, and President Barack Obama refused to send the three trade agreements to Congress for approval until GOP leaders strike a deal on renewing the program.

House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R., Mich.) for the first time Wednesday outlined a sequence for congressional passage of three trade pacts along with separate legislation renewing the TAA.

Republican leaders in both chambers have insisted that the TAA be voted upon separately, so lawmakers can debate its merits.

Democrats, led by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.), want a scaled-back version of the TAA program to be considered as part of the South Korea trade bill, in order to lure more votes for both.

In remarks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Camp said there was general agreement among congressional leaders that the Senate would first pass the TAA, after which the White House would submit the trade agreements for ratification.

The House would vote on the TAA legislation and the trade bills at the same time.

Mr. Camp said that was the outline on which he, Mr. Baucus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) agree.

Mr. Camp said talks with the White House over the outline were ongoing, but had entered a hiatus this week amid fighting over raising the nation's federal debt ceiling.

A Democratic Senate leadership aide and an administration trade official said Thursday that the discussions on sequencing had so far fallen short of a deal.

"There is no agreement. There have certainly been productive conversations but so far, there is not an agreement on a path forward," the Senate aide said in an email.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Tuesday that he believed a "framework" had emerged to allow the retraining program and trade pacts to be passed, most likely separately, after the recess.

An administration official said Wednesday that "the Senate has proposed including Trade Adjustment Assistance on the Korea implementing bill, and that remains a possibility while we are in discussions on other possible approaches.

While talks have been promising, we understand that congressional leadership is still discussing the specific sequencing and timing."

Berny Polanía

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