WASHINGTON — U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and White House officials sent a strong message to Congress Monday, stressing they will not submit three free trade agreements to the Hill for a vote until lawmakers agree to extend an expired program helping workers who have lost their jobs because of import competition.

This story first appeared in the May 17, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Obama administration has largely resolved outstanding issues on trade pacts with Panama, South Korea and Colombia that have languished for several years, and it is holding technical discussions with House and Senate committees to draft the trade bills that it eventually plans to submit to Congress for a vote.

As part of the trade package that includes the trio of pending trade deals, the administration is also seeking a commitment from House and Senate leaders on approving an expired program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance for manufacturing and service workers who lose their jobs when U.S. companies close because of competition from imports.

“We believe that there are significant economic gains in expanding trade and expanding exports, but we also have an economic and moral obligation to provide the reemployment assistance to those who do bear the dislocation or cost associated with what is for our country as a whole a very positive economic policy,” Gene Sperling, director of the White House National Economic Council, said on a conference call. “That is why the administration will not submit implementing legislation on the three pending free trade agreements until we have a deal with Congress on the renewal of a robust, expanded TAA program, consistent with the objectives of the 2009 trade adjustment assistance law.”

Several prominent House and Senate Republicans have argued against renewing the TAA program, saying it would add to the national debt.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees trade, said, “It makes no sense to shut the door on increasing U.S. exports by over $10 billion in order to fund a costly program.”

Speaking for the administration, Kirk said, “First of all, the President and every member of the administration that has been involved in our trade policy have always said that we wanted an all-encompassing movement of our package on trade, not just the FTAs. There are some that are more enthusiastic about the opportunity to gain final approval on Panama, Colombia and Korea, and you should not be surprised that there are many others who are equally enthusiastic about TAA and less the FTAs. But the administration has always believed that we have to have a balanced and thoughtful approach to our trade policy, equal parts [dedicated] to opening up new markets and [enforcement and helping workers dislocated by trade].”

Asked whether the administration would walk away from the pending trade agreements if it cannot get an agreement on renewing TAA, Sperling said the administration does not “expect it to come to that,” but does expect to reach a bipartisan agreement with lawmakers. Kirk added the administration is not seeking to link two other trade preference programs that expired at the end of the year — a duty free program for Andean countries and the Generalized System of Preferences — to movement on the pending trade pacts, adding that it plans to seek renewal of those programs separately.

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