Move trade deals for Ky.'s benefit

Republicans in Congress and President Barack Obama want to spur economic growth by signing three free-trade agreements this year.

In Kentucky, makers of autos, bourbon and chemicals — as well as the state's farmers — stand to gain from the lowering of barriers to U.S. exports.

The Senate last week took a big step toward enacting the pacts with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. But House Republicans may yet find a way to thwart their own desire.

The hang-up is funding for a 50-year-old program that assists and retrains workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition. Democrats want to be sure the program is renewed before the trade agreements are finalized.

To that end, the Senate approved a classic compromise. Republicans got a scale back in Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits that had been expanded in 2009. Democrats succeeded in retaining new categories of workers, such as call-center operators, who became eligible for the assistance two years ago as part of the stimulus.

Once the trade agreements leave the White House, Congress has 90 days to approve them under Trade Promotion Authority, or fast track, provisions that apply to the three.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner are insisting that Obama submit the treaties to Congress before the House approves the program for workers.

McConnell, who voted against worker assistance, said: "It's time for the administration to demonstrate something that seems to be in short supply on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue: trust." (This from the man who said his top priority is making sure Obama is a one-term president.)

Bloomberg reports that Boehner has predicted the House can renew the worker aid approved by the Senate as long as Obama first sends the trade agreements to Congress.

But Boehner has a spotty record of predicting what his own caucus will do; just last week, he was surprised when he didn't have the votes to pass a disaster relief bill. Obama would be asking to be snookered if he sent over the trade pacts without first getting House approval for worker assistance.

The trade agreements are expected to win congressional approval, though it will be a hard vote for many Democrats. With the exception of the United Auto Workers, labor unions are opposed, warning the agreements will send more U.S. jobs overseas.

In Kentucky, that horse left the barn long ago. On balance, the state seems to have more to gain from being able to compete in new markets, especially South Korea.

The Congressional Research Service estimates the agreement with South Korea would create 280,000 American jobs.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, American Farm Bureau and the Telecommunications Industry Association support both the trade agreements and the worker assistance.

This is a chance for House Republicans to see beyond their ideological blinkers and show they really do care about the big economic picture.