(Updates with comments from Kerry in sixth paragraph.)
June 30 (Bloomberg) -- Republicans led by Senator Orrin Hatch blocked a Senate hearing on three free-trade agreements, as efforts to act on the long-stalled deals collapsed in partisan rancor over aid to displaced workers.
Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee boycotted a hearing today on the trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, denying Democrats a quorum and a chance to advance the measures that have languished since 2007. The Republicans said President Barack Obama and Democrats included aid to workers who lose jobs to overseas competition over their objections.
“The president knew where we stood, and he decided to ignore those who don’t agree with him,” Hatch, the top Republican on the committee, said at a Capitol news conference. “The president chose to go down this path, and he’s going to have to live with this choice.”
As Democrats gathered in a Washington hearing room for the 3 p.m. hearing, Republicans held the news conference to blast the administration’s handling of the agreements. The blow-up denied both sides a bipartisan victory they said they wanted. Democrats said it was a portent for debt-ceiling talks between Republicans and Obama.
After pressure from Republicans to move ahead on trade, Obama reworked agreements that his predecessor, George W. Bush, made with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. The administration won support from major business groups for the trade deals, backing it has been unable to win on health-care and environmental regulations.
“Ironically, our colleagues who are not here today are the same ones who have been attacking the administration over what they called dawdling over these agreements,” Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in the hearing room. “They don’t want anything passed here.”
Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat and the committee chairman, said Congress was now “farther away” from approving the three agreements. After the hearing, he pledged to try to find a way to pass both the trade deals and worker aid.
Legislation to implement the three trade bills is covered by fast-track protection, which guarantees that once the bills are submitted to Congress by the president they can’t be amended and must receive up-or-down votes.
Before the administration submits legislation, committees in the House and Senate conduct “mock markups,” which let lawmakers seek to amend provisions in the bill. The Senate hearing today was intended to be the first such session.
The Trade Adjustment Assistance program augments health and unemployment benefits to workers who lose their jobs because of overseas competition. As part of the stimulus bill in 2009, it was expanded to include service workers such as call-center employees. Those added benefits expired in February.
“One of the ways that we can build bipartisan support, and frankly, answer the fears of the American public is to have a robust trade-adjustment package,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “If you look at the cost of it over 10 years, I think it is a small price to pay.”
--With assistance from Margaret Brennan in New York. Editors: Steve Geimann, Larry Liebert
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