WASHINGTON — Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.) warned the Bush administration’s trade chief Thursday that he would push to expand a program that helps workers displaced by global trade before allowing consideration of a controversial deal with Colombia.

This story first appeared in the March 7, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“[Trade Adjustment Assistance] is number one,” Baucus said at a hearing on the 2008 trade agenda.

“Get that done and we can talk,” he told U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, who testified on the administration’s priorities.

Baucus is the sponsor of a bill that would renew and expand the assistance program to cover service workers. It also would make it easier for those who lose their jobs to countries that don’t have trade deals with the U.S., such as China and India, to receive job training and other financial aid. The current program primarily covers workers who lose their jobs because of imports from countries with which the U.S. has bilateral trade agreements.

Baucus’ remarks appeared to be a response to speculation that the White House is considering sending the Colombia trade deal to Congress for a vote this week, which would give the House and Senate a 90-day period to consider the deal.

Apparel importers, who last year shipped $427.7 million worth of product made in Colombia to the U.S., and textile producers, who export millions of dollars in fabrics and yarns to the country, have been urging Congress to pass a bilateral trade deal with Colombia to make duty free benefits permanent. U.S. companies now receive duty free benefits on their imports from Colombia under a trade preference program, but those benefits are temporary and must be renewed by Congress, which creates uncertainty.

Democrats, particularly those representing industrial states that have lost thousands of jobs to international competition, have been under pressure to provide more relief for workers who lose their jobs because of trade. The adverse impact of trade also has become a major issue in the presidential race and lawmakers are closely watching voter sentiment.

Schwab reiterated the administration’s strong support for Colombia and touted reforms that President Alvaro Uribe has made to reduce violence and assassinations of trade unionists.

“For all those who claim the government is not doing enough to stem the violence, the evidence is to the contrary — it’s clear and compelling,” Schwab testified. “President Uribe has a remarkable track record of success in reducing the historic violence and impunity that has plagued Colombia for a decade.”

Schwab cited Colombian government figures showing homicides have dropped 40 percent since Uribe took office in 2002, with homicides of trade unionists dropping more than twice that rate.

President Bush has urged Congress to approve the trade pact as a matter of national security, particularly in light of recent military movements along the Colombia-Venezuela border ordered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Colombia has accused Venezuela of supporting Colombian rebels, which Chavez has denied.

“President Uribe told me that one of the most important ways America can demonstrate its support for Colombia is by moving forward with a free trade agreement that we negotiated,” Bush said on Tuesday.

But Baucus stressed that the worker assistance overhaul would come first.

“That’s right, ambassador, we will do one first and the second later, and you are not getting the second unless you do the first,” Baucus said. “Let me make that clear.”