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Democrats, Republicans take recess as workers’ trade aid shrinks

Both sides point fingers as Trade Adjustment Assistance program is not reauthorized

House Ways and Means leaders Richard E. Neal, left, and Kevin Brady were at odds over the conditions for reauthorizing the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.
House Ways and Means leaders Richard E. Neal, left, and Kevin Brady were at odds over the conditions for reauthorizing the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Congress goes into the Fourth of July recess with Democrats and Republicans at odds over the next steps to take on key trade legislation, including retraining funds for workers hurt by foreign competition. 

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., and Trade Subcommittee Chairman Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., blamed Republicans for allowing the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, or TAA, to revert as of Thursday to a program that provides fewer benefits and training to workers in manufacturing. The program will no longer cover the service industry. 

The House did not act on a bill the Senate passed June 24 that would have continued the expanded benefits program until July 24. The Congressional Research Service says the statutory cap for training and reemployment services will decrease from $450 million to $220 million. 

“While our country continues to deal with the reverberating effects of the pandemic, this reversion will also disproportionately harm women and minority workers, and will prevent workers affected by trade from China from accessing the program,” Neal and Blumenauer said in a joint statement.

They said Democrats wanted to modernize and reauthorize TAA, an apparent allusion to legislation by Blumenauer, but that “Republicans refused to engage.” Blumenauer’s bill would, among other things, expand the program to include government workers affected when public sector services are sent offshore.

Senate Banking Chairman Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said last week that Democrats had hoped for a three-month extension to provide time for work on more comprehensive legislation. A month, he said, would be better than the alternative.

“This is our only tool to support workers who lose their jobs because of countries like China that cheat the rules. This is an economic problem and a China problem,” Brown said, adding that he hoped agreement could be reached on a multiyear renewal.

J.P. Freire, a spokesman for Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady, said the Texas Republican has made it clear that a full reauthorization of TAA must be paired with a reauthorization of Trade Promotion Authority, which expired Thursday.

Ways and Means Republicans have raised concerns for several weeks about what they see as disinterest by Democrats and the Biden administration in a tool the GOP considers important in forging comprehensive trade agreements and accessing markets.

Trade Promotion Authority sets U.S. negotiating objectives, timetables for public disclosure as trade talks proceed and requirements to consult with Congress. In return, the administration gets expedited consideration from Congress for agreements negotiated under the authority and restrictions on amending the agreement.

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade showed the limitations of Trade Promotion Authority when Speaker Nancy Pelosi kept the Trump administration waiting for action until it negotiated changes on labor and environmental provisions with congressional Democrats.

Congress reauthorized TAA and Trade Promotion Authority in 2015 in a contentious process in which the fates of the two bills were linked. President Barack Obama sought Trade Promotion Authority protections for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, but an overwhelming majority of Democrats opposed the agreement and voting against fast-track became a proxy for opposition to the deal itself.

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