* Trade deals were signed more than four years ago
* Fight over TAA program, debt ceiling blocked July action
* Deals in line for South Korea, Colombia, Panama
(Adds Hatch, Camp, Republican aide quotes)
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, Aug 3 Congressional leaders said on
Wednesday they have agreed upon a path to approve three
long-delayed free trade agreements and a program to help U.S.
workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition.
"My staff and (Senate Republican Leader Mitch) McConnell's
staff have been in discussions for weeks over the Trade
Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program and the three outstanding
FTAs," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement.
"We believe those discussions have provided a path forward
in the Senate after we return for passage of the bipartisan
compromise on the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, followed
by passage of the three FTAs," Reid said.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk also said he was "very
pleased Senators Reid and McConnell have agreed on a path
forward" for the trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and
Panama and the TAA.
In a separate statement, House of Representatives Speaker
John Boehner welcomed the deal reached by Reid and McConnell.
"I look forward to the House passing the FTAs, in tandem
with separate consideration of TAA legislation, as soon as
possible," Boehner said in a statement.
"The Administration looks forward to working with leaders
of the Senate and House after Congress returns in September to
secure approval of these important initiatives for America's
working families," Kirk added.
A Republican aide said the White House had insisted on
passage of the TAA in exchange for sending the free trade
agreements to Congress for votes.
The deal between Reid and McConnell shows there are votes
to pass the pacts and the retraining program, the aide said.
Senate Republicans will be able to offer amendments to TAA, but
the expectation is they will be defeated, the aide added.
Each of the three pacts were signed more than four years
ago and the White House had hoped to win their approval before
Congress left on its August break.
BOOST TO EXPORTS/JOBS
But the bitter fight over raising the debt ceiling, as well
as a disagreement over the TAA program, prevented action on the
pacts, which together are expected to boost U.S. exports by
about $13 billion and help create or maintain 70,000 jobs.
Meanwhile, a rival deal between the European Union and
South Korea went into force on July 1 and another pact between
Canada and Colombia takes effect later this month.
Leaders of key House and Senate committees responsible for
moving the trade deals said they were prepared to act quickly.
"Working together to enact this package into law needs to
be a top priority when we return in September," said Senate
Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat.
"Washington must act and act now; we cannot afford to let
these trade agreements languish any longer," said House Ways
and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Republican.
Many Republicans question the cost and effectiveness of
TAA, while Democrats see it as a vital part of the U.S. social
safety net to help workers disadvantaged by trade.
The deal reached by McConnell and Reid calls for separate
consideration of TAA, but Reid made clear he did not support
movement of the trade deals until TAA is approved.
"I agree with the Majority Leader that we have a path
forward on TAA and the Free Trade Agreements," McConnell said
in a joint statement with Reid.
"I have long supported passage of the long-delayed FTAs,
and I know that I speak for many on my side of the aisle that
we are eager to get moving and finally pass them. Although I do
not personally support TAA, I know there is bipartisan support
for this program," McConnell said.
Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate
Finance Committee, also welcomed the agreement and urged
President Barack Obama to send the trade deals to Congress for
approval "as soon as possible."
"Every day that passes puts American exporters at an
international competitive disadvantage and delays the creation
of tens of thousands of jobs for American workers," he said.
(Editing by Eric Walsh and Todd Eastham)