The U.S. Senate began debate Monday on a bill that waives tariffs on goods from developing countries in a step toward congressional approval of long-delayed trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
The Senate voted 84-8 to begin action on legislation to renew the Generalized System of Preferences, which dates back to the early 1970s and waives duties on thousands of goods from poor countries to help spur development.
The lopsided vote clears the way for potentially several days of debate on the legislation, which the House approved earlier this month on a voice vote.
Supporters of the three free trade agreements hope the Senate action will help set the stage for President Barack Obama to formally submit the pacts to Congress for votes.
"With this vote and subsequent votes in the Senate this week, we will be one step closer to passage of the long-stalled trade agreements with Colombia, (South) Korea and Panama," the National Foreign Trade Council business group said in a statement.
Each of the trade deals was signed more than four years ago under former Republican President George W. Bush, and Obama has worked over the past year to address his fellow Democrats' concerns about the pacts.
The White House also has tied the fate of the trade deals to renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA, a nearly 50-year-old income assistance and retraining program that helps workers displaced by foreign competition.
The program was expanded in 2009 to include more workers and provide improved health insurance benefits.
Those expanded benefits expired early this year and many Republicans determined to cut government spending balked at renewing them, setting up a fight with the White House and congressional Democrats.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, defended the program on the Senate floor Monday, calling it the "right investment in America's workers."
Baucus plans to offer an amendment to renew a scaled-down version of the 2009 TAA reforms, based on a compromise worked out with Representative Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and with the White House.
The conservative Republican group "Club for Growth" urged senators Monday to oppose the amendment, calling it "duplicative (and overly generous) because the unemployed already have access to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits thanks to the many extensions already passed by Congress."
But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other big business groups want the Senate to approve the compromise program and Congress to get on with approving the trade deals.
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