Republicans seeking to kickstart the stalled U.S. trade agenda planned a vote Wednesday in the House on a tariff bill that could pave the way for eventual approval of the stalled free-trade agreements.
The proposed renewal of the expired Generalized System of Preferences program, which provides duty-free access for more than 100 developing countries, is part of a Republican effort to put pressure on President Obama to submit free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
"We're hopeful it will force some action on the part of not just the president, but the Senate as well," Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) said, appearing at a press event with other Senate Republicans.
Although support for the FTA’s represents one of the few areas of agreement between the White House and congressional Republicans, their submission has been delayed by a dispute over lapsed funding for retraining for workers who lost their jobs owing to companies moving operations offshore.
Obama has insisted that a scaled-back version of Trade Adjustment Assistance--at about half the cost of the expired program--be passed alongside the three pacts.
The two sides have moved closer to a deal on the sequencing of votes on the trade deals and job retraining program, according to congressional aides and business representatives that are pushing for passage of the whole trade package.
Under a plan being worked out to ensure that both the trade agreements and job-retraining program move together, the path to the trade bills would begin with House approval of the duty-free program. The Senate would then attach the job retraining program to the bill and send it back to the House. Once Obama sends up the free-trade agreements for an up-or-down vote, the House will hold separate votes on the three trade pacts and the bill combining the duty-free and job-retraining programs.
If passed, the bill to renew duty-free access for developing countries and funding for job retraining would then be ready to be signed into law, and the trade pacts would be sent to the Senate for approval.
Several lawmakers confirmed key aspects of the plan Wednesday, though aides cautioned that some details of the sequencing of votes still need to be ironed out.
At separate events, Hatch and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said the Senate would likely take up the bill to renew the duty-free and job retraining programs before the trade pacts are submitted.
Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) announced in August that they had found a "path forward" for the Senate to take up the trade deals and job-retraining program this month.
That breakthrough was made possible after a dozen Republican senators pledged to ensure that the Trade Adjustment Assistance bill can clear the 60-vote hurdle for floor consideration.
One of those senators, Roy Blunt of Missouri, said the group would be willing to support a vote to renew the retaining program even if it is attached to the duty-free bill.
"Attaching TAA to GSP makes no real impact on our commitment," Blunt said at the briefing.
A Republican Senate aide said the 60 votes should be there to pass the joint bill and send it back to the House, so "the administration needs to uphold their end of the deal and submit the FTAs as soon as possible."
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) Tuesday reiterated his vow to allow a vote on the retraining program "in tandem" with the trade pacts in a letter to Obama. But administration officials said some details still need to be worked out on the House side.
"We hope to see the same progress in the House that we saw in the Senate before recess," the administration official said.
Business groups hope Congress will pass the trade deals by the end of October.
"I really think the House moving [the Generalized System of Preferences program] is the start of this process, and I hope it all moves this quickly," said Doug Goudie, director of international trade policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also said it hopes Wednesday's vote would help build momentum for the rest of the agenda, including the trade pacts.