US lawmakers voted to advance a stalled free trade pact with South Korea, but divisions remains rife with Senate Republicans vowing to block it in a dispute with President Barack Obama.
Key committees of the House of Representatives and Senate on Thursday supported the deal in so-called markups, giving a green light for Obama to submit the largest US free trade pact in a generation that would slash 95 percent of tariffs.
But Senate Republicans voiced anger that Obama plans to attach the agreement to a renewal of benefits for workers who lost jobs due to foreign competition, saying he is trying to please unions that oppose the Korea deal.
"I support the South Korea trade agreement implementing bill and want it to pass. I strongly support it," said Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Democratic-led Senate Finance Committee.
"But I cannot condone this abuse of Trade Promotion Authority or turn a blind eye to dubious domestic spending programs," Hatch said, referring to the president's power to submit trade deals without potential changes by Congress.
The Senate committee, where Democrats hold a majority, approved the trade pact alongside the workers' aid. The House Ways and Means Committee, led by Republicans, also voted for the pact but without the attached assistance.
Representative Dave Camp, a Republican from Michigan who heads the House committee, offered a compromise under which he would support both the trade deal and assistance if submitted separately.
Camp, who negotiated with the White House, said he secured "significant reforms" to the aid known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA and that it would be fully offset by spending cuts amid worries over the US debt.
"Despite questions about how the House, Senate and administration proceed on TAA, one thing is perfectly clear: we cannot afford to let these trade agreements languish any longer," Camp said.
"The rest of the world is fast moving forward, and we risk losing market share and jobs if we fail to act," he said. A free trade agreement between South Korea and the European Union, negotiated after the US deal, took effect last week.
The committees also looked at trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. But the Colombia agreement faces opposition from House Democrats who are concerned about a history of deadly violence against labor unions in the country.
The Obama team renegotiated the Korea free trade agreement, originally sealed in 2007 under president George W. Bush, and won over the support of key opponents including automakers and the United Autoworkers trade union.
But the AFL-CIO, the main US labor confederation and key Democratic base, remains opposed. It rejects Obama's projection that the Korea deal would support 70,000 US jobs and says that corporations would be the main winners.
"We can't just talk about making goods in America; we have to make sure a fair market exists for our goods to be sold abroad," said Representative Louise Slaughter, a labor-friendly Democrat from New York opposed to the trade pacts.
"Instead we've been rolling out the red carpet to foreign nations at the expense of the American worker for decades," she said.
A Democratic-led Congress in 2009 ramped up the Trade Adjustment Assistance by making hundreds of thousands of workers in the service industry eligible for benefits and retraining if their jobs are threatened by foreign trade.
The program cost $1.1 billion in the last fiscal year but the expansion expired after Republicans won 2010 congressional elections. Under the proposed compromise, the aid would be restored, but with cuts, through 2013.
Senator Max Baucus, the Democratic head of the Senate Finance Committee who negotiated the compromise with Camp and the White House, said he was open to new options on process but supported both the aid and the trade deals.
The two measures "will open lucrative new markets to American goods while ensuring US workers have all the help they need to adapt and thrive in the 21st century global economy," Baucus said.