By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, seeking to spur action on three long-delayed free trade agreements, said on Thursday he was prepared to help the White House renew a retraining program for workers displaced by trade but added a major demand of his own.
"Given the importance of these free trade agreements to our economy and the economic recovery, Senator McConnell is prepared to commit to help get passed an appropriate TAA (Trade Adjustment Assistance) bill this year that includes a reauthorization of TPA (Trade Promotion Authority)," McConnell spokesman Michael Brumas said in an email.
But McConnell wants Congress to vote on the trade deals before considering TAA and TPA, Brumas added.
TPA, also known as "fast-track" legislation, would give President Barack Obama authority to negotiate trade agreements he could send to Congress for a straight 'yes' or 'no' vote without any amendments. Most recent presidents have had the authority, but it expired in 2007 and Obama has not yet formally asked it be renewed.
McConnell's offer followed weeks of fruitless negotiations between the White House and Congress over the nearly 50-year-old TAA program, which provides retraining assistance for workers who have lost their jobs because of import competition or workplaces moving overseas.
The program was expanded in 2009 to cover additional workers and provide more generous healthcare benefits, but those features expired early this year.
The White House has demanded a deal to renew TAA at or near levels approved in 2009 before it sends three free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia to Congress for approval.
The trade deals were originally negotiated and signed during the Republican administration of George W. Bush, but the Obama administration has modified each of the pacts to garner more Democratic party support.
CONTROVERSY OVER RENEWING TAA
Many Republicans have balked at renewing TAA at the level approved by Congress in 2009, even though that was the result of a bipartisan deal struck by the leaders of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. A large number of freshmen Republicans elected on promises to cut government spending have questioned the effectiveness of the TAA program.
An administration official, speaking on the condition he not be identified, rejected the idea of delaying renewal of TAA and tying it to an extension of fast-track trade legislation.
"We need to get TAA done with these trade deals. We're happy to talk about TPA at a later time," the official said.
Obama already faces opposition from many Democrats to the three free trade agreements. TAA renewal could reduce the intensity of the fight over the trade deals, but he still would have to rely heavily on Republicans to win their approval.
Many Democrats also would oppose giving Obama new fast- track authority, especially before a presidential election next year in which it is possible a Republican could win.
"Inserting TPA into these discussions is a complete nonstarter and is the quickest way to blow up the negotiations to extend Trade Adjustment Assistance and pass the free trade agreements," one Democratic congressional aide said.
"Any proposal to include it in the current discussions is just a stunt," the aide added.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Peter Cooney)