Democrats and Republicans are Negotiating Your jobs as we speak...
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional negotiations on a bill to boost the U.S. president's power to hammer out trade agreements threatened to collapse on Thursday over how much federal aid to give workers who lost their job because of changing trade flows.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said he was less optimistic about a deal because of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas' insistence on watering down the Senate's "trade adjustment assistance" provisions.
"If that's the case, we'll just wait" until after Congress returns in September to finish the bill, Daschle said.
Thomas, a California Republican, told reporters earlier on Thursday that there was "a lot of work left to do this morning" to reach agreement on the trade bill.
Lawmakers need to reach a deal by 3 or 4 p.m. (1900 or 2000 GMT) Thursday for the House to be able to vote on the package before it adjourns on Friday for a month-long recess, he said.
The Senate is leaving a week later for its break and therefore would have more time to vote on the bill.
Final congressional action on the "trade promotion authority" bill is key to President Bush's ambitious trade agenda, which envisions new world trade agreements and a Western Hemisphere free trade pact by January 2005.
Commerce Secretary Don Evans said believed a deal could be reached.
"I'm sure hopeful. I'm optimistic at this moment. It sounds like they've made a lot of progress," Evans told reporters.
House and Senate negotiators worked past midnight on Wednesday and reached substantial agreement on the trade negotiating portion of the bill, as well as separate sections dealing with trade benefits for Andean nations, reauthorization of the U.S. Customs Service and renewal of the "Generalized System of Preferences" trade benefit program for poor countries, a House Republican aide said.
A key remaining sticking point is the level of subsidy to help pay for health insurance for workers who have lost their jobs because of trade, as well as how the displaced workers could use that refundable tax credit, the aide said.
The Democratic-controlled Senate passed an expanded trade adjustment assistance program with a 70 percent tax credit to pay for health insurance costs. The Republican-controlled House passed a plan with a 60 percent tax credit.
Thomas has said he can not go above 65 percent and still win approval of the trade bill in the House.
Daschle declined to comment on what level of tax credit he could accept, saying that would depend on the overall adjustment aid package. However, he said it was more important to get a strong package for displaced workers than to finish the bill before the August break.
Trade promotion authority would allow Bush to negotiate trade agreements that Congress can approve or reject, but not amend. Supporters say without the legislation other countries would refuse to negotiate seriously with the United States because they would know Congress could change any pact.
The White House has not had the authority since 1994, mainly because of Democratic Party concerns about the possible impact of trade agreements on workers and the environment.
In a speech to a Republican business group, Evans said approval of the negotiating authority bill was "not just about trade. It's about peace and prosperity for the world."
A new round of world trade liberalization would not only boost U.S. jobs, but help "bring the 3 billion people around the world who live on less than $2 per day out of poverty," Evans said. "You're really talking about economic development of the world."