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House bill expands help for workers hurt by trade

WASHINGTON — The House voted Wednesday to significantly expand a four-decades-old program giving financial and retraining help to people who lose their jobs because of foreign competition.

Democrats have made clear that more assistance for displaced workers must precede action on several bilateral free trade agreements promoted by the Bush administration. But the White House also warns that the president may veto the House bill, charging that it goes beyond the intentions of the current law.

The bill, passed 264-157, must still be considered by the Senate.

It extends for five years the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, initiated in 1962, with substantial changes. Service-sector and public agency employees, currently not covered, would be eligible for TAA training, financial aid and health-care programs, as would more workers who lose their jobs due to outsourcing to foreign countries. TAA coverage is extended to more "downstream" workers whose companies lost contracts in industries disrupted by trade.

For too long, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., trade policy has focused "more on opening new markets and has dismissed the real consequences faced by those who lose their jobs as well as their communities across America that are hard hit."

Hours earlier, the House Ways and Means Committee unanimously approved legislation implementing a U.S.-Peru free trade agreement, setting the stage for a full House vote on the accord next week.

Democrats, who took control of Congress last January, have long resisted free trade agreements, saying they are a source of the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. But last May, House Democrats reached a compromise with the administration guaranteeing that future trade deals would include unequivocal language safeguarding worker rights and the environment. At the same time, Democratic leaders pledged to their own party that they would expand TAA protections.

Some free trade skeptics weren't convinced. "Make no mistake, the TAA vote and Peru Free Trade Agreement are entirely separate votes," said Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine. TAA, he said, "only recognizes the harmful effects of our trade policies and strengthens the argument that we must change our overall trade model."

In fiscal year 2006, nearly 120,000 workers were eligible to receive TAA benefits, and about 60,000 started to receive cash and training benefits.

The bill increases the ceiling on training funds from the current $220 million to $440 million and then to $660 million by 2010.

The bill is H.R. 3920 On the Net: Congress: http:thomas.loc.gov/