Trade deals on hold until September as Congress leaves town

Negotiations on the trade deals are expected to continue through August between the Obama administration and congressional staff, with the aim of producing a deal on Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) so the three agreements can be sent up to Capitol Hill in the fall. 

Several proposals are in the mix, but differences on how to get TAA through Congress in tandem with the agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama is holding up a final agreement. 

To ensure that TAA is passed along with the trade deals, the White House wants to include the worker-assistance program in the Korean agreement. Administration officials say it's the only viable way, so far, to move forward until another process emerges. 

"While talks have been promising, we understand that congressional leadership is still discussing the specific sequencing and timing of a viable path to move the three trade agreements and Trade Adjustment Assistance," administration officials have said. "We hope agreement can be reached as soon as possible."

Under another approach in the works, the Senate would first pass a stand-alone TAA bill, the White House would send up the three FTAs to Congress and then the House would vote on all four measures separately. 

Sen. Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said last week that was one of the options currently being discussed.

But the TAA bill might have to originate in the House because it's a revenue measure. The House could send the Senate another bill, such as the renewal of the Generalized System of Preferences program, where it would be amended and passed with TAA attached. The White House would then send up the trade deals and the House would schedule votes on all four measures. 

Any agreement would need to strike a balance where the White House feels assured that a streamlined TAA measure would pass Congress and lawmakers are comfortable that the Obama administration will send up the trade deals. 

U.S. trade officials have repeatedly reassured lawmakers that they are serious about completing all three agreements this year. 

There's support in the Senate to move forward on TAA, with Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) gathering 12 lawmakers who say they'd pass a stand-alone bill, making it filibuster-proof.

Blunt said he would be willing to let Congress clear TAA before the administration sends up the trade agreements. But Portman stressed the need to send all four bills separately and at the same time.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said a week ago that administration officials had reached a “framework” agreement with Congress on how to move forward TAA and the FTAs, but said the timing of votes hadn't been worked out.