Senate Republicans vow to break trade impasse; Dems not sold

Two Republican senators said Friday they have a way to break an impasse that would win congressional approval for three trade deals.

Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanCost for last three government shutdowns estimated at billion The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation MORE (R-Ohio) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP group's ad calls on Graham to push for election security: 'Are you still trying?' Exclusive: Kushner tells GOP it needs to unify behind immigration plan The Hill's Morning Report - Can Trump save GOP in North Carolina special election? MORE (R-Mo.) released a letter to President Obama sent by them and 10 other Republicans promising support for a new workers-assistance program.

They said their support for a bill authorizing assistance to workers hurt by increased imports, know as trade adjustment assistance (TAA), would clear its passage through the Senate.

“This provides more than enough votes to ensure the reformed TAA bill can pass the Senate,” Portman, a former U.S. trade representative for President George W. Bush, told reporters. “In our view theres no more excuses.”

The Obama administration has declined to send trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia to Congress after Republicans balked at the TAA bill.

It remains unclear whether the move by the GOP senators would clear a path in the House.

Blunt and Portman said Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader Scaramucci compares Trump to Jonestown cult leader: 'It's like a hostage crisis inside the White House' MORE (R-Ohio) has the votes to move the TAA bill if Democrats in the lower chamber support it along with about 35 of his own members.

Portman said the senators who signed the letter have committed to supporting procedural votes on TAA requiring 60 votes as well as a vote to approve the measure. They said the bill would reflect negotiations involving the White House, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusBottom line Overnight Defense: McCain honored in Capitol ceremony | Mattis extends border deployment | Trump to embark on four-country trip after midterms Congress gives McCain the highest honor MORE (D-Mont.).

But the Obama administration and Democrats on Friday expressed concerns about the process, especially in the Senate.

“The announcement by a number of Senate Republicans supporting passage of trade adjustment assistance is a welcome development in our discussions with Congress,” a senior administration official told The Hill. “Whats needed now is a commitment on specifics from the leadership of both chambers for a viable process for the passage of the three trade agreements and TAA.

“Were in active discussion with congressional leaders. We hope we can reach agreement as soon as possible.”

Rep. Jim McDermottJames (Jim) Adelbert McDermottBottom Line Promoting the voice of Korean Americans Lobbying World MORE (D-Wash.), ranking member on the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Trade, said while hes confident the votes to pass TAA exist in the House — Democrats have been pressing for a renewal of the 2009 program and back the recent changes — hes concerned about the ability of the Senate to push through the measure, especially if its left open for amendment, as has been suggested.

McDermott suggested that the administration wait until TAA clears both chambers before sending the three trade pacts up to Capitol Hill.

“We sent hundreds of hundreds of bills in the last Congress and they all died in the Senate,” he said. “Why would we think that because Dave Camp sends it over they wouldnt do the same thing or stall it to the point where it doesnt pass?”

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.

The Obama administration sent the trade deals to Congress last month and included TAA in the Korean pact, a move opposed by congressional Republicans. The White House has been adamant that the workers measure must move at the same time as the trade pacts.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers run into major speed bumps on spending bills Budowsky: Donald, Boris, Bibi — The right in retreat Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet MORE (R-Ky.) said Thursday he’d consider taking up TAA if it’s done separately from the trade deals and can be amended. He has pushed for a renewal of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), something the White House has said isnt on the table right now.

“I myself am personally committed to working with [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [(D-Nev.)] to ensure a fair floor process for my members so they have an opportunity to try to amend a standalone Trade Adjustment Assistance bill separate from the three free-trade agreements,” McConnell said.

The measure could stall if the House and Senate pass different versions.

A conference to work out a final bill could hold up TAA through the fall, especially considering that most of September will be taken up by budget negotiations before the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.

Portman acknowledged that waiting until the fall might make the trade deals harder to pass because of the schedule.

McConnell said Thursday that he doesnt “expect to finish any of this before August,” as debt-limit negotiations dominate the congressional schedule.

“Still, I think the administration should submit [the trade deals] anyway as a show of good faith with our trading allies in Korea, Colombia and Panama,” he said. “Then we can work to pass them when we return.”

Camp told The Hill on Friday that hes “not ready to concede” that the TAA has to be held up through the fall.

“Were still talking to both the administration and members of the Senate,” Camp said. “Its something I think we need to show progress on before September. That doesnt mean theyll be completed but Id like to have us show some progress.”

McDermott said hed be surprised if the trade deals were done before October.

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Although she didnt sign the letter, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) pledged her support Friday, saying that “securing a reauthorization of Trade Adjustment Assistance is paramount as the Senate deliberates over our nation’s trade policies.”

“I urge the president to separate the pending trade agreements and TAA, ensuring an up or down vote for this vital program,” she said.