by Tom Ramstack

Washington, DC, United States

The Senate plans to vote as soon as this week on a bill that would eliminate duties on some imports from 129 nations.

The trade preferences bill has been stalled in a dispute over whether free trade means more Americans lose their jobs to overseas competitors.

President Barack Obama has said he will support the trade preferences bill, but only if it includes a program to retrain American workers who lose their jobs to foreigners.

He is holding up action on three free trade agreements until a job retraining program is included in the trade preferences bill. The free trade agreements would be with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

Even Republicans who disputed whether to give in to Obama's demands are saying they can wait no longer.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) said at a new conference, "Nothing has been done and the United States is losing its leadership in what we've done for 60 years in world trade, leading the rest of the world. The status quo has to end."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the bill, called the Generalized System of Preferences, would prevent the loss of 380,000 jobs.

The free trade agreements, and the duty-free imports bill, are at the heart of disputes over whether preferences for certain foreign imports help or hurt the economy.

Big businesses say the trade preferences give them access to cheaper raw materials and products they sell in the United States, thereby giving their customers a price break.

Labor unions say lowering tariffs for foreign companies with trade preferences results in more American factories and other businesses shutting down.

The National Association of Manufacturers issued a statement this week urging quick action in Congress to approve the Generalized System of Preferences.

"The vast majority of U.S. imports using [trade preferences] are raw materials, parts and components or machinery and equipment used by U.S. companies to manufacture goods in the United States for domestic consumption or for export," the statement said. "The longer we wait to pass the agreements the more market share we lose to our competitors overseas."

Companies that support the foreign trade preferences include Wal-Mart Stores Inc., General Electric Co. and Caterpillar Inc.

Since the old trade preferences lapsed Jan. 1, American companies claim to be paying an additional $1.8 million a day in additional tariffs on the goods they import.

The new Generalized System of Preferences bill, HR 2832, would lower tariffs on about 4,800 items, such as radial tires, machinery, silver jewelry and raw materials.

Other support for the bill comes from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The foreign trade preferences legislation would "create a path forward for approval of the pending trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, which are among the Chamber's top legislative priorities this year," said Bruce Josten, the Chamber's executive vice president for government affairs.

Senate leaders working on the bill are hinting they will attach an amendment inserting the job retraining program Obama and other Democrats demand. They hope the amendment will give the bill the votes it needs to pass.

After the amendment is attached, the Senate is expected to send the bill back to the House for another vote. The House already approved its own trade preferences bill two weeks ago.

Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was optimistic about getting the trade bills passed. He said new agreements among senators have created a "path forward" for the proposed legislation.


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Vote on Disputed Trade Bill Could Be Hitched to Jobs Retraining | Politics