US Senate nears final vote on key worker aid bill

By:  Jim Abrams

WASHINGTON (AP) — A standoff between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans over free trade agreements could take a major step toward resolution Thursday with a Senate vote on legislation to help American workers who fall victim to foreign competition.

As part of a plan carefully orchestrated with the White House, the Senate is voting to renew expired portions of Trade Adjustment Assistance, a half-decade-old program that provides retraining and financial support for workers adversely affected by trade.

Senate passage would send the TAA bill to the House for a vote and lead to the White House submitting to Congress, after years of holdups, free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

With jobs the dominant political topic, President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats have insisted that the worker aid program be extended as a condition for taking up the free trade pacts. While many Republicans are critical of the TAA program, they have agreed to go along so that the trade agreements, which were signed during the administration of President George W. Bush, can finally be completed.

In a rare instance of concurrence, both Obama and Republicans have made the trade treaties a part of their jobs agenda, saying that once in effect they will increase U.S. exports by some $13 billion a year and create tens of thousands of jobs.

The Senate vote Thursday is to extend some benefits that were added to the TAA program as part of the 2009 economic stimulus act but which expired last February. The 2009 additions included more money for retraining and increased unemployment support and health insurance subsidies. They also extended eligibility to public sector and service industry workers and farmers, and to workers affected by trade with countries that don't have free trade agreements with the United States, such as China and India.

After Republican objections that these additions doubled the cost of the program, previously operated at about $1 billion a year, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Republican, reached a compromise that trimmed some of the 2009 benefits.

The top Democrat in the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, warned his party of the consequences of a possible rejection.

He said rejection of the measure could backfire on tough-on-spending conservatives.

"They could vote 'no' but what they're in essence doing is they're voting to spend more money," Boehner said Thursday. "Because that's exactly what they'll have."

Public sector workers will no longer be eligible and unemployment benefits were reduced. The health insurance tax credit was reduced from 80 percent in 2009 to 72.5 percent. Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, said the 10-year cost of the compromise would be $962 million.

The vote is still a difficult one for some Republicans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has close ties to the party, urged senators to vote for the TAA bill, saying their votes will be part of the chamber's annual scorecard of how lawmakers vote on key issues. Similarly, the conservative Club for Growth, calling TAA "duplicative, inequitable and inappropriate," said lawmakers should vote no and reminded them that the vote will be part of their annual scorecard.

Democrats, while split on the trade agreements, were solidly behind the TAA extension, and the biggest U.S. labor union asked senators to vote for the compromise and against any amendments that might modify or weaken the TAA program.