By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional leaders said on Wednesday they have agreed upon a path to approve three long-delayed free trade agreements and a program to help U.S. workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition.
"My staff and (Senate Republican Leader Mitch) McConnell's staff have been in discussions for weeks over the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program and the three outstanding FTAs," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement.
"We believe those discussions have provided a path forward in the Senate after we return for passage of the bipartisan compromise on the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, followed by passage of the three FTAs," Reid said.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk also said he was "very pleased Senators Reid and McConnell have agreed on a path forward" for the trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama and the TAA.
In a separate statement, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner welcomed the deal reached by Reid and McConnell.
"I look forward to the House passing the FTAs, in tandem with separate consideration of TAA legislation, as soon as possible," Boehner said in a statement.
"The Administration looks forward to working with leaders of the Senate and House after Congress returns in September to secure approval of these important initiatives for America's working families," Kirk added.
A Republican aide said the White House had insisted on passage of the TAA in exchange for sending the free trade agreements to Congress for votes.
The deal between Reid and McConnell shows there are votes to pass the pacts and the retraining program, the aide said. Senate Republicans will be able to offer amendments to TAA, but the expectation is they will be defeated, the aide added.
Each of the three pacts were signed more than four years ago and the White House had hoped to win their approval before Congress left on its August break.
BOOST TO EXPORTS/JOBS
But the bitter fight over raising the debt ceiling, as well as a disagreement over the TAA program, prevented action on the pacts, which together are expected to boost U.S. exports by about $13 billion and help create or maintain 70,000 jobs.
Meanwhile, a rival deal between the European Union and South Korea went into force on July 1 and another pact between Canada and Colombia takes effect later this month.
Leaders of key House and Senate committees responsible for moving the trade deals said they were prepared to act quickly.
"Working together to enact this package into law needs to be a top priority when we return in September," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat.
"Washington must act and act now; we cannot afford to let these trade agreements languish any longer," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Republican.
Many Republicans question the cost and effectiveness of TAA, while Democrats see it as a vital part of the U.S. social safety net to help workers disadvantaged by trade.
The deal reached by McConnell and Reid calls for separate consideration of TAA, but Reid made clear he did not support movement of the trade deals until TAA is approved.
"I agree with the Majority Leader that we have a path forward on TAA and the Free Trade Agreements," McConnell said in a joint statement with Reid.
"I have long supported passage of the long-delayed FTAs, and I know that I speak for many on my side of the aisle that we are eager to get moving and finally pass them. Although I do not personally support TAA, I know there is bipartisan support for this program," McConnell said.
Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, also welcomed the agreement and urged President Barack Obama to send the trade deals to Congress for approval "as soon as possible."
"Every day that passes puts American exporters at an international competitive disadvantage and delays the creation of tens of thousands of jobs for American workers," he said.
(Editing by Eric Walsh and Todd Eastham)