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Obama clears hurdle to FTAs with Korea, Colombia, Panama

WASHINGTON (Yonhap News) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has reached a deal with congressional Republicans on the terms of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, clearing a major obstacle to the ratification of bilateral trade pacts with Korea, Colombia and Panama, the White House announced Tuesday.

"As a result of extensive negotiations, we now have an agreement on the underlying terms for a meaningful renewal of a strengthened TAA," press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.

TAA is designed to provide re-training and health care benefits for workers who lose jobs due to import competition. Obama has said he would not submit the free trade agreements (FTAs) with the three nations before resolving the renewal of the TAA program, which was expanded two years ago and expired in February. The Republicans had refused to agree to extend TAA, citing budget constraints.

"The president embraces these critical elements of TAA needed to ensure that workers have the best opportunity to get good jobs that keep them in the middle class. Now it is time to move forward with TAA and with the Korea, Colombia, and Panama trade agreements, which will support tens of thousands of jobs," Carney added.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said his committee will hold a "mock" markup on Thursday of the bills on the FTAs with the three trading partners that includes the extension of TAA.

But it remains unclear how smooth the process will be.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would vote against the FTA with Korea if it includes a renewal of TAA.

"Speaking for myself, I've never voted against a trade agreement before. If the administration were to embed a Trade Adjustment Assistance into the Korea trade agreement, I would be voting against it," McConnell said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) also criticized the TAA deal, calling it "highly partisan."

"This highly partisan decision to include TAA in the Korean FTA implementing bill risks support for this critical job-creating trade pact in the name of a welfare program of questionable benefit at a time when our nation is broke," Hatch said in a statement.

He added Obama "should send up our pending trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and Korea and allow for a clean vote."

The Korea-U.S. FTA, called KORUS FTA, was signed in 2007 under the previous governments of the two sides. The ratification process has been stalled, however, in both nations.

Obama, seeking reelection next year, views the KORUS FTA as a tool to expand exports and create jobs in a sluggish economy.

The U.S. government's efforts to get it ratified have gained urgency as Korea struck a deal with the European Union to put a bilateral free trade agreement into effect in July.