GOP leaders urge action on trade bills

Passing three pending free-trade agreements remains at the forefront of job-creation policy for congressional Republicans and business groups, as evidenced by the Republican-controlled House and GOP senators committing to set the stage for passage of the bills.

With the House set to start tackling the languishing trade agenda on Wednesday, supporters of deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama ramped up their efforts Tuesday to convince the White House to send the agreements to Capitol Hill.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged President Obama to immediately send lawmakers the deals as part of the White House's jobs plan.

"By sending these trade deals to Congress immediately, Obama would not only help ensure the creation of jobs here at home but would also boost Americans’ confidence about the prospects for a broader economic recovery and, crucially, about lawmakers’ ability to work together," McConnell wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post on Tuesday.

"Obama says he wants bipartisan solutions. Here’s one Congress is willing to enact immediately," McConnell said.

The president is set to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday to detail his jobs plan, which is expected to include passage of the three trade accords.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue joined in the call, pressing for passage of the trade deals as part of a broader jobs agenda in a letter sent to lawmakers and the president on Monday.

The plan includes passing the three trade deals, which the Chamber argues would create 380,000 jobs, while modernizing export controls that could lead to another estimated 340,000 jobs.

“Time and again, Americans have heard Congress and the administration declare that creating jobs must be the nation’s highest priority," Donohue wrote. "If they are serious about that, they should enact policies aimed at growing the private sector. Our plan gives Congress and the president a good place to start, right away."

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Bill Donald also urged the White House to send up the trade deals.

“If the president is serious about creating jobs, we expect the three trade agreements to be sent to Congress this week," Donald said. "There is absolutely no conceivable reason to delay these job-generating trade pacts any longer.”

"A lot of finger pointing is going on while our competitor’s capitalize on our inability to act on these trade deals,” he said.

For every $1 billion worth of agricultural goods exported, approximately 8,000 jobs are created, according to USDA figures provided by Donald.

The three pending agreements would generate nearly $2.5 billion in additional exports and around 20,000 jobs; Donald called the accords "a stimulus package that doesn’t place additional financial burdens on U.S. taxpayers."

The House is expected to start the process of getting the trade deals up to Capitol Hill on Wednesday by passing a bill, under suspension of the rules, to extend the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, which lapsed in December.

The bill retroactively restores GSP benefits to Jan. 1 and extends the program through July 30, 2013.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), panel ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Trade Subcommittee, are co-sponsoring the measure. 

The legislation is expected to serve as a vehicle for the Senate to attach a streamlined Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) bill, passage of which is a requirement of the White House to send the trade deals to Congress.

"I and others have told the president we are prepared to allow this program to move ahead for a vote as a sign of good faith and to move the trade deals forward," McConnell said.

Republican Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Rob Portman (Ohio) have vowed to produce the votes needed to push TAA through the Senate.

The House would take up passage of the GSP-TAA bill following passage by the Senate, possibly in tandem with the three trade deals.

There's general agreement between the White House and Republicans that the free-trade deals should be passed, but the two sides have yet to reach an agreement that guarantees passage of the GSP-TAA.

The GSP program provides trade preferences to more than 130 countries and would allow importers to apply for refunds on duties they paid since the program expired, according to the bill.

The bill covers the cost of about $1.5 billion in losses in tariff revenues by raising the merchandise processing fees, a customs user fee, from 0.21 percent to 0.34 percent starting on Oct. 1 and ending June 30, 2014.

The fee hasn't been increased since 1994, while costs have risen, according to Ways and Means Republicans.

Many U.S. companies use raw materials from GSP countries, and the duty-free treatment reduces production costs for those businesses.

About 82,000 jobs are either directly or indirectly associated with the importation and use of GSP-eligible imports, according to analysis by the Coalition for GSP.