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Supporters See Path to Pass Trade Pacts Soon

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Sen. Rob Portman and other GOP Senators have tried to broker a compromise on pending free-trade agreements and federal assistance for workers who would be hurt by the pacts.

Supporters of pending free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea are holding out hope that Congress might pass the measures before adjourning for the August recess, even as Capitol Hill remains fixated on the looming Aug. 2 deadline when the government bumps against its debt limit.

Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Rob Portman (Ohio) told reporters Friday that they have satisfied President Barack Obama’s demand for assurance that the Senate would approve federal assistance for workers whose jobs disappear as a result of the trade deals. The two Republicans produced a letter with the names of a dozen GOP Senators who have committed to voting with the Democrats to kill any filibuster of such legislation.

Passage of the free-trade agreements has been stymied by a disagreement between Obama and Congressional Republicans over the appropriation of money to assist displaced workers, called Trade Adjustment Assistance.

But the White House confirmed that discussions with GOP leaders in the House and Senate continue and suggested that passage of the free-trade agreements before the August recess was still possible.

“The announcement by a number of Senate Republicans supporting passage of trade adjustment assistance is a welcome development in our discussions with Congress.

“What’s needed now is a commitment on specifics from the leadership of both Houses for a viable process for the passage of the three [free-trade agreements] and TAA,” an administration official told Roll Call in an email Friday afternoon. 

The Obama administration previously requested that TAA be attached to one of the free-trade deals to ensure its approval, a procedure Senate Democrats have referred to as historically routine and noncontroversial.

But Senate Republicans argue the move would be unusual and set a bad precedent for future trade agreements, encouraging lawmakers to lard up such deals with extraneous amendments that would impede their approval.

Some Republicans also have opposed TAA on the grounds that it is too costly, particularly given Washington’s ongoing fiscal crisis. But Blunt and Portman believe they have engineered a compromise acceptable to all sides with their plan to clear TAA as a stand-alone bill while guaranteeing enough votes to overcome any GOP filibuster that might be lodged against it. The Senators said they had yet to hear back from the administration about their proposal.

“Instead of putting it together with the trade agreement, the idea was to say, ‘OK, this is the new requirement, the hurdle that we need to reach. We will separate it out and ensure that there is a pathway forward,’” Portman said. “That’s what we were asked to do. We have done that. As Sen. Blunt has indicated, we have done that and more.”

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