WASHINGTON (AP) - Senate leaders said late Wednesday that they had agreed on a path toward passing legislation to help workers displaced by foreign trade and taking up three free trade agreements that have languished since they were signed during the George W. Bush administration.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., issued a joint statement saying they had agreed on a "path forward" to pass an extension of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program when Congress reconvenes in September. President Barack Obama, while supporting the trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, has insisted that congressional action on the agreements be linked to renewal of the program, which provides training and financial help to workers hurt by foreign competition.
Reid said weeks of discussions with McConnell had resulted in outlining a course where the Senate could pass the worker program extension followed by votes on the three trade deals. He repeated that, like Obama, he had never supported movement on the trade agreements until Congress extends sections of the half-century-old worker assistance program that expired earlier this year.
"We are eager to get moving and finally pass" the trade agreements, McConnell said. He said that while he did not personally support the worker aid program, "I know there is bipartisan support for this program."
With the agreement, the next step could be for the administration to formally present Congress with legislation on the three trade deals. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk issued a statement saying the agreements will support tens of thousands of jobs in this country and "the administration looks forward to working with leaders of the Senate and House after Congress returns in September to secure approval of these important initiatives for America's working families."
Reid and McConnell did not provide details of the legislative course, but last month a dozen Senate Republicans issued a letter saying that they would support efforts by Senate Democrats to advance a compromise worker assistance bill past any attempted filibusters and to a final vote.
The administration had demanded that the worker aid bill be considered as part of the trade package, but had indicated that the two could be considered separately if extension of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program was assured.
In the House, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., welcomed the Reid-McConnell statement and said the House is prepared to act on the three pending trade agreements and on the worker aid program.
He stressed the need to move quickly. "Every day that goes by we lose more export and job opportunities to our European and Canadian counterparts, who have already entered into agreements with these countries."
House Speaker John Boehner said he looked forward to the House passing the free trade agreements "in tandem with separate consideration" of the worker program as soon as possible.
Republicans have traditionally supported the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, but say it has grown too expensive and should not be a condition for approval of the three trade deals. Still, GOP allies in the business community have made approval of the trade deals a top priority and have pressed Congress to reach an agreement to advance both the trade pacts and the TAA program.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said the trade deals would increase exports by $13 billion a year for U.S. businesses and farmers as well as create jobs, "and that's why we've been fighting so hard to get it done."
The trade agreement with South Korea alone would be the largest accord since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.