President Obama urges Republicans to reach agreement to move free-trade deals

Obama didn't provide any indication as to when the White House would send the three deals up to Capitol Hill for final votes. 

The Obama administration's decision to include Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) in the Korea accord has rankled Republicans who've called for separate votes on the three deals and TAA. 

On Thursday night, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley said the administration would move the trade deals with Colombia, Panama and Korea "very soon." The Korean deal is expected, at this point, to include TAA. 

"We can no longer wait," Daley said. "If there's no agreement on an alternative approach in the very near future, we will move forward to seek passage of the FTA with TAA." 

House Republicans could hold separate votes on TAA and recombine the two parts before sending Korea over to the Senate. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he won't contest a separate vote on the worker-aid program if a renewal of fast-track authority is included in a bill, which isn't a requirement of the House to move TAA. 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is talking to his colleagues in the Senate about a way to pass TAA separately from the trade agreements. 

Right now, the White House has made it clear that TAA must go through at the same time as the trade deals and, so far, including it in an implementing bill is the only viable option that has emerged.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a slew of other business groups support the renewal of the program that retrains workers who've lost their jobs because of foreign trade. 

"Our failure to act is an embarrassment and is costing us jobs," said Gary Shapiro, president and chief executive, Consumer Electronics Association, said in a letter on Friday to Obama and lawmakers. "We cannot further isolate the United States while the rest of developed world is cutting trade barriers."

Frustration is rising as the trade deals have stalled while the White House and congressional negotiators focus on a plan to raise the debt-ceiling before the Aug. 2 deadline. 

"The debt-ceiling is a serious issue" Shapiro said. "But our single-minded focus on it has obscured the personal crisis Americans face: Can we put Americans back to work? Does America still have the sort of real leadership that made us great?"

House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said last week that he will take up the worker assistance program separately and move it with the three trade agreements.

If the White House sends up the Korean agreement with TAA, lawmakers must tread carefully to preserve fast-track authority, which allow the accords to go through Congress unamended.  

Camp vowed to work out a way to get the bill the President Obama's desk while House Democrats questioned whether TAA could get through the Senate as a standalone measure. 

Camp, the Obama administration and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) reached an agreement last week that appeared to put the trade deals on a glide path to passage. The inclusion of TAA in the Korean deal halted progress. 

Negotiators agreed on the substance of a worker-retraining program, streamlining the 2009 version included in the economic stimulus. The reworked program is fully paid for with offsets in other programs. 

As negotiations continue, time is running short with the Obama administration and congressional leaders aiming to complete the trade deals before the August recess, which at this point is expected to start for both chambers on Aug. 6.

If the trade deals aren't done by then they could be pushed off for an indefinite period of time as budget talks -- the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 -- are expected to dominate the September legislative landscape. 

"There is no time to waste fighting politics as usual," Daley said. "If we do not act before the August recess, American business will suffer."

More in Finance

Senate Republicans urge cooperation on trade agenda

Read more »