WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Forty-one Senate Democrats told President Barack Obama on Monday they agreed with his decision to not send three free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress until Republicans agree to renew an expanded worker-retraining program.
"We recognize, as you do, that such a deal will be challenging to secure because it requires significant bipartisan commitments in both chambers of Congress to vote in favor of a TAA (Trade Adjustment Assistance) extension," the senators said in a letter.
"The challenge is worth it. We agree with you that strengthening the safety net for the middle class by extending TAA should be a prerequisite for consideration of new trade agreements," the senators said.
The letter from more than three-quarters of the 51 Democrats in the Senate shows the hard bargaining that is still needed to win approval of the free-trade agreements with the three nations left over from the administration of former President George W. Bush.
The Obama administration has been laboring for eight months to resolve Democratic party concerns over the agreements.
The program helps retrain workers who have lost their job because of import competition or a factory moving abroad. It was expanded in 2009 to include service industry workers and workers who had lost their jobs because of competition from China and India in addition to U.S. free trade partners.
The 2009 reforms, which expired at the start of the year, also included provisions to make it more affordable for displaced workers to purchase health care.
Last week, a group of 162 Democrats in the House of Representatives urged Obama to insist the expanded TAA program be renewed for five years.
Many House Republicans, fresh from an election victory in which the huge U.S. budget deficit was a concern for many voters, have objected to the price tag of the expanded program.
Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has also criticized the administration's delay in sending the trade deals to Congress without a renewal of the expanded TAA program.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Philip Barbara)