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Administration and Congress differ on trade policy, worker protections
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    WASHINGTON — The administration’s top trade official urged Congress on Thursday to act on free trade agreements this year, but Senate lawmakers made clear that won’t happen until displaced workers are better protected.
    Renewing and expanding the Trade Adjustment Assistance program ‘‘is number one,’’ Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., told U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab at a hearing on trade policy. ‘‘Get that done and we can talk.’’
    That point was pounded home by others on the panel.
    Sen Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., spoke of the ‘‘tremendous erosion of domestic political support for trade’’ and stressed that it was ‘‘very, very critical that we move forward’’ on TAA, a program initiated in 1962 that provides financial aid and retraining to people who lose their jobs because of foreign competition.
    ‘‘I hope the president doesn’t threaten to veto’’ proposed Senate legislation to extend the program, said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. ‘‘This is a safety net that we owe the American people.’’
    Schwab outlined an ambitious agenda for the final months of the Bush administration, including getting Congress to finalize free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea and reaching a successful conclusion to the current round of multilateral trade negotiations, named after Doha, Qatar in the Mideast where the trade talks began more than six years ago.
    She said the administration was ‘‘fully supportive of a strong and vibrant TAA program.’’
    The House last October passed legislation to extend TAA for five years while extending eligibility for TAA financial aid, training and health care programs to service sector and public agency employees. It also provided tax incentives for communities trying to cope with the shrinking of their manufacturing sectors due to trade.
    The White House issued a veto threat against the bill, saying it ‘‘converts TAA from a trade-related program to a universal income-support and training program.’’
    The administration is making a strong push for Congress to vote on the Colombia free trade agreement, citing the economic benefits to both countries and the need to bolster a political ally. Schwab acknowledged a history of violence against labor leaders and others in that country, the main concern of opponents, but said the government of President Alvaro Uribe has made real strides in reducing the level of violence.
    The Colombia deal is thought to be the only free trade pact with any chance of clearing Congress this year. Last year, after the new majority Democrats got a commitment from the administration that labor rights and the environment would be key to all future trade deals, Congress acted on one agreement, a free trade deal with Peru.
    Free trade deals would be certain to get less attention if the Democrats capture the White House in November. The two Democrats battling for the nomination — Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill. — made criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the landmark 1994 trade pact with Canada and Mexico, a focus of their Ohio primary campaigns.
    ‘‘It’s not just NAFTA, the entire trade regime doesn’t work,’’ United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said in a phone news conference Wednesday. He said his union won’t endorse a candidate until it learns more about positions on trade, China and revitalizing American manufacturing.
    Schwab said the president’s highest negotiating priority this year was concluding the Doha Round aimed at removing international barriers to trade in agriculture, manufactured goods and services. She said the administration was concerned about ‘‘the serious potential erosion of ambition’’ in some of the latest proposals coming out of the talks. ‘‘Doha cannot succeed if the World Trade Organization caves in to the lowest common denominator positions.’’
    Schwab was also drilled by lawmakers about lumber trade with Canada, cap and trade policies for greenhouse gases, the Air Force decision to award a major aerial refueling tanker contract to a consortium including Europe’s Airbus, the administration’s resistance to opening up trade to Cuba and beef sales to South Korea and Japan.

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