Congressional Leaders Plan to Move FTAs

Just before the August recess, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that they had agreed on a path forward for consideration of three long-stalled free trade agreements (FTAs) with Korea, Colombia, and Panama and the trade adjustment assistance (TAA) program to help workers adversely impacted by trade when Congress returns from the August recess.

The agreed-upon plan is for the Senate to first pass the TAA measure by holding a separate vote and then vote on the FTAs. The agreement would extend the TAA health care tax credit through the end of 2013, but reduce the subsidy rate to 72.5 percent of health insurance premiums. TAA and the subsidy expired Feb. 12 after Congress opted not to extend the program.

Reid has been vocal in not supporting movement on the FTAs, which he has never supported, until TAA has passed. On the other side, McConnell does not support TAA, but understands there is bipartisan support for this program and the only way of moving forward on the FTAs. McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and other Republicans have insisted on a separate TAA bill not included in the FTA implementing legislation.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk welcomed the agreement, stating that he was “very pleased” that the Senate leadership had agreed on a path forward in the Senate for the pending trade agreements and TAA.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement that Senate leaders have cleared an important hurdle. “I look forward to the House passing the FTAs, in tandem with separate consideration of TAA legislation, as soon as possible,” Boehner said.

House Ways and Means ranking member Sander Levin (D-Mich.) and Trade Subcommittee ranking member Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said in a  statement on TAA that the path forward in the House and Senate “must be ironclad in its assurance that TAA will be renewed, otherwise TAA should be attached to the Korea FTA.”

Since May the administration has said that it will not formally submit the FTAs under the fast-track Trade Promotion Authority procedures until the provisions of the Labor Department’s TAA program have been renewed. A bipartisan June agreement on the TAA terms did not include a deal on the legislative process, resulting in an impasse.

The FTAs negotiated by the Bush administration with Colombia, Korea, and Panama have been stalled for years. The Colombia pact has been the most controversial of the three given the historically high level of violence against trade unionists and the impunity accompanying that violence.