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Senate Republicans cause cancellation of free trade hearing

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Senate action on three stalled free trade agreements was cut short Thursday when Republicans refused to participate, objecting to linking the deals to renewal of a program that retrains workers hurt by foreign trade.

A U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing on legislation involving agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama was canceled amid recriminations from both parties about playing politics.

There's bipartisan support for action on the pacts, holdovers from former U.S. President George W. Bush's administration. Economists have said they could generate 250,000 jobs and increase U.S. exports by US$13 billion.

But the Obama administration has said it wants the legislation to include renewal of expired sections of the U.S. Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which provides financial and job-retraining help to workers hurt by foreign competition. Republicans want to consider that separately.

“The president knew where we stood and he chose to ignore those who disagreed with him,” said Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the committee's top Republican. He spoke after Republican lawmakers announced they were boycotting the hearing and using a procedural tactic on the Senate floor to block it from occurring.

The committee chairman, Sen. Max Baucus, said the move “means the opportunity to pass important job creation legislation is now delayed.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president believes the agreements are “economically vital” and that now is the time for Congress to act.

The trade deals were finalized in the Bush administration but were never taken up by the then-Democratic-controlled Congress.

The Obama administration has renegotiated the treaties to secure greater access for U.S. auto exports in Korea, change laws in Panama that made it a tax haven, and commit Colombia to acting to protect worker rights.

Republicans have pressed the administration to submit the bills to Congress, saying delays were causing billions of dollars in losses for U.S. farmers and manufacturers who are having trouble competing in those markets because of high tariffs.

The bills to put the trade deals in place need approval from the Senate committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, with the White House getting involved to help negotiate a final version that each chamber can pass or reject, but not amend.

The House committee has yet to meet on the issue.

House Speaker John Boehner's spokesman, Michael Steel, said Republicans were pleased that Obama was finally submitting the bills to Congress. But the Republicans have maintained its position on the trade assistance program “and that is how we expect to proceed,” he said.

Senate Republicans said there was no precedent for linking trade deals to a program they have supported in the past but which they now say is too expensive in an age of mounting deficits.

Committee Democrats disagreed and noted that a trade assistance bill was attached to the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s.

At issue are expansions in the program that were approved as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. They extended benefits to people working in the service sector and made it easier for displaced workers to buy health insurance. Those sections expired in February and Democrats want them renewed, at least in part.

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