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 PortmanFighting the opioid epidemic: Congress can't just pass laws, but must also push to enforce them The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet Rising number of GOP lawmakers criticize Trump remarks about minority Dems MORE (R-Ohio) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP wants commitment that Trump will sign budget deal Poll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Senate passes bill making hacking voting systems a federal crime 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.

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“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 won't say whether he'd back Biden over Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Amash's critics miss the fact that partisanship is the enemy of compromise 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 BaucusOvernight 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 Judge boots Green Party from Montana ballot in boost to Tester 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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants GOP rattled by Trump rally Third Kentucky Democrat announces challenge to McConnell 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.

The other lawmakers who signed the letter are Republican Sens. John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanVA chief pressed on efforts to prevent veteran suicides McConnell ups pressure on White House to get a budget deal There is a severe physician shortage and it will only worsen MORE (Ark.), Scott Brown (Mass.), Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke A brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats Chuck Todd on administration vacancies: 'Is this any way to run a government?' MORE (Ind.), Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBiden has a lot at stake in first debate The Hill's Morning Report — Trump turns the page back to Mueller probe Trump praises Thad Cochran: 'A real senator with incredible values' MORE (Miss.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp Trump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report MORE (Maine), John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator McConnell ups pressure on White House to get a budget deal Senators introduce bill to prevent border agency from selling personal data MORE (N.D.), Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonGeorgia senator hospitalized after fall Senate GOP raises concerns about White House stopgap plan to avoid shutdown VA chief pressed on efforts to prevent veteran suicides MORE (Ga.), Mike JohannsMichael (Mike) Owen JohannsMeet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska Farmers, tax incentives can ease the pain of a smaller farm bill Lobbying World MORE (Neb.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Overnight Defense: Highlights from Defense pick's confirmation hearing | Esper spars with Warren over ethics | Sidesteps questions on Mattis vs. Trump | Trump says he won't sell F-35s to Turkey Epstein charges show Congress must act to protect children from abuse MORE (Alaska) and Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand FAA nominee advances to full Senate vote Senate GOP raises concerns about White House stopgap plan to avoid shutdown MORE (Miss.).

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.