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US to let Andean trade, worker aid programs lapse

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A program to help workers who lost their jobs because of foreign competition and another that provides duty-free treatment for goods from Colombia and Ecuador are expected to expire on Saturday while lawmakers fight over their future.

Democrats in the House of Representatives on Wednesday blamed the Republican majority for the expected lapse of Trade Adjustment Assistance, which funds programs for workers laid off due to import competition or factories moving overseas.

"Republicans should act now to extend this vital program at a time when so many working families are still struggling under the weight of deep economic recession," said Democratic Representative Sander Levin.

The program was expanded as part of the 2009 stimulus act, boosting annual appropriations available to states to $575 million, from $220 million. It was originally set to expire at the end of December, but lawmakers fashioned a compromise to keep the program going for another six weeks.

They also extended the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act through February 12 to keep duty-free imports from Colombia and Ecuador flowing.

Now, "without action by Congress, many of the Colombian industries that have been devastated by the aftermath of the epic floods stand to suffer further economic harm," said Colombia's ambassador in Washington, Gabriel Silva.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Republican, crafted a bill that would extend both programs through the end of June. But Republican leaders canceled a vote on the measure after the conservative group Club for Growth urged lawmakers to defeat the measure.

They called the program "duplicative and overly generous" because Congress has already provided laid-off workers with 99 weeks of unemployment benefits.

They also say the program was inequitable because it only helps workers who have lost their jobs because of trade and not because of technology changes or domestic competition.

Camp told reporters he thought the Andean bill would move next week, but without the worker aid measure.

Colombia has received duty-free treatment for most of its exports to the United States since the early 1990s under the Andean trade preference act, but has hoped to replace that with approval of a bilateral free trade pact.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Todd Eastham)

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