Trade breakthrough may clear way for vote

Associated Press / June 29, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The White House and congressional lawmakers neared a breakthrough in the long-stalled effort to finalize coveted free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama — pacts President Obama has hailed as a boon for the US economy.

Key lawmakers from both parties agreed yesterday to work on an agreement to extend aid for American workers displaced by foreign trade.

The White House, acknowledging concerns from labor unions, had threatened to hold up passage of the pacts unless the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, or TAA, was renewed.

The Senate Finance Committee will begin considering the trade agreements and the assistance program tomorrow. Committee chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, plans to include TAA in the legislation on the Korea deal, the largest and most sought after of the three agreements.

Some top Republicans balked at that move.

Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, said it was a “highly partisan decision’’ that “risks support for this critical job-creating trade pact in the name of a welfare program of questionable benefit at a time when our nation is broke.’’

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he would oppose any trade deal in which the worker assistance program was embedded.