Washington yesterday (7 July) came one step closer to passing long-pending US trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama - but a clash with Republicans over an aid programme for US workers threatens to stall their progress once again.

While the Senate Finance Committee and the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee backed draft legislation on all three pacts, Republicans came out in opposition against the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) scheme.

This meant the resulting documents did not include plans to renew TAA - putting them "at odds" with the Obama Administration, which wants passage of the three trade deals to be linked to the renewal of the aid programme.

The TAA expired earlier this year, and provides retraining and other assistance for American workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition.

"The Administration remains committed to advancing the renewal of a robust Trade Adjustment Assistance programme that is the product of a bipartisan process, together with the pending trade agreements, as soon as possible," said United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

The "mock markup" meetings allow lawmakers to make amendments before legislation is submitted by the president. But Republicans have pledged to fight for fairer trade that promotes exports of American goods, rather than offering aid for workers who lose their jobs.

The South Korea, Colombia and Panama trade deals are forecast to boost US exports by around $13bn, as well as helping to meet Obama's goal of boosting the US economy by doubling the country's exports by 2014 and creating new jobs.

Representatives of apparel brands and retailers are, not surprisingly, calling for quick approval of the legislation.

"The US apparel and footwear industry is able to maintain its competitive edge in the global marketplace when we reduce barriers to trade," says Kevin Burke, president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA).

"Along with the passage of the pending free trade agreements, we look forward to immediate and retroactive renewal of the Andean Trade Preferences Act (ATPA), the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), and Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA)." 

He adds: "Creating certainty and opportunities for growth will enable our industry."

Likewise, the National Retail Federation (NRF) is urging Congress to move the trade agenda forward. "Making it easier for US companies to export their goods overseas creates US jobs," notes NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay.