Top U.S. Senate Republicans Tuesday accused President Barack Obama of a "schizophrenic trade policy" and urged him to send free trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress without further delay.
In back-to-back speeches on the Senate floor, Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Orrin Hatch blasted the White House for refusing to submit the agreements until lawmakers agree to renew the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program at or near 2009 levels.
"At a time when 14 million Americans are looking for work, they actually want to hold off on these known job-creating agreements in exchange for a green light to spend more money. It's astonishing," McConnell said.
The five-decade-old TAA program, which was expanded in 2009 to around $1 billion a year, provides retraining and healthcare benefits for workers who have lost their job because of import competition or their workplace relocating overseas.
Many Republicans argue the program is a waste of taxpayers' money as Congress looks for ways to cut the huge U.S. budget deficit. They also say it is unfair that workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition get more generous unemployment benefits than most other workers.
"We need to separate these issues, deal with them independently, and move ahead with these trade deals," which the White House itself has estimated would create tens of thousands of U.S. jobs, McConnell said.
He said Democrats were holding up the pacts to get a better deal for union groups that oppose them.
At a news conference, McConnell told reporters Republicans "would be happy" to consider TAA if it was coupled with legislation to give Obama trade promotion authority to negotiate new trade agreements.
That authority, which expired during the second term of former President George W. Bush, allows the White House to negotiate trade deals that Congress must approve or reject without making any changes.
Obama has not asked for the authority, but his administration is negotiating a regional trade agreements with eight countries in the Asia Pacific region.
APPROVAL THIS YEAR
Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office, said Obama was "committed to passing all three trade agreements this year as well as extending Trade Adjustment Assistance."
The administration has been moving toward the first step in congressional consideration of the agreements, the so-called "mock markups" held by the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee before the the White House formally submits the pacts, she said.
"Congress can keep faith with America's workers by reaching an agreement on TAA by the time that work is done, so that these agreements are not delayed," Guthrie said.
Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, accused the White House of professing to support the trade agreements while coming up with one excuse after another not to send them to Congress for a vote.
"This schizophrenic trade policy is doing nothing but hurting American workers and undermining our recovery," Hatch said, adding he believed each pact would pass with bipartisan support if Obama submitted them.
He said he feared the 2012 elections could doom the trade agreements if Obama does not send them to Congress soon for a vote.
"I'm afraid that if these agreements aren't submitted this summer, they never will be," Hatch said.
"If the expanded TAA program can stand on its own merits, as each of the FTAs can, then it should be introduced and voted on separately from the FTAs," he said, referring to the free trade agreements. (Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; editing by Mohammad Zargham)
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.