Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Tuesday he expects free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to be submitted to Congress soon, as debate got underway on a tariff bill that could pave the way for passage of the long-delayed trade pacts.
The top Senate Republican urged President Barack Obama to quickly send up the trade deals, but said Congress should also renew fast-track authority allow the president to pursue more trade pacts.
So-called trade promotion authority, which is designed to provide the president more leeway in negotiating trade deals by giving Congress just an up-or-down vote, expired in 2007. McConnell wants to renew it through 2013.
"It's my expectation, based on the understanding that I have with the administration, that the president will stop dragging his feet and soon submit all three of them for a quick approval," McConnell said in prepared remarks for a Senate floor speech. "But these agreements, while helpful, are not enough."
The Senate late Monday voted to take up a bill passed by the House last week to renew duty-free access for imports from developing countries, with plans to attach the funding for the job retraining program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance.
Senate approval of scaled-back funding for the program to retrain workers whose jobs were transferred overseas would mark a key step toward approval of the three trade pacts. In the face of Republican resistance to what some view as wasteful spending, Obama has insisted that the job retraining program be renewed alongside the trade agreements.
"It's indefensible for the White House to demand a vote on Trade Adjustment Assistance as a condition for action," said McConnell. "Still, I and others have agreed to allow it so we can finally move ahead on these vital trade deals."
Both parties have cited progress over the past week in resolving differences over how Congress will handle the trade pacts and job retraining programs to ensure everything is passed, though congressional aides say the exact sequencing of votes is still being worked out.
Under a plan favored by Democrats, the trade deals would be submitted only after passage of the retraining program. But the House would hold off on sending the retraining bill to the President's desk until after the trade agreements win final approval.
However, House Republicans would prefer to have the trade pacts sent up before they vote on the job retraining program.
But before any movement on the trade deals can take place, the job retraining program must survive potentially deal-breaker amendments in the Senate. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) told reporters after the vote Monday that he would seek an amendment to try to strip out duty-free access to sleeping bags made in Bangladesh that compete with a manufacturer in his state. But he predicted it wouldn't get much support.
But a Republican Senate aide predicted that there are 60 votes in the Senate to ensure Trade Adjustment Assistance wins approval.