President Barack Obama's administration said Monday it would hold off on trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia until Congress approves benefits for workers.
It marks the latest political feud to block congressional action on the free trade deals. The Obama administration has set a goal of winning approval of the South Korea deal -- the largest U.S. trade pact in a generation -- this year.
The White House, which has butted heads with its labor allies by pressing ahead with free trade, said it would not send to Congress legislation on the three pacts until renewal of a program that supports affected workers.
"The president has always been unequivocal about the fact that keeping faith with America's workers is just as important for us as an administration as opening new markets and the enforcement of our trade agreements," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told reporters on a conference call.
The Trade Adjustment Assistance program offers benefits and retraining to Americans whose jobs are threatened by imports. Congress made hundreds of thousands more workers eligible under the 2009 stimulus bill championed by Obama.
But the expansion of the program ran out earlier this year as lawmakers of the rival Republican Party -- which won 2010 elections -- said it was too expensive. The program's benefits totaled $1.1 billion in the last fiscal year.
Obama's top economic aide Gene Sperling said that the United States had an "economic and moral obligation" to assist workers and voiced hope that the Republicans would agree on the assistance alongside the trade agreements.
"We see no reason, particularly at a time when we have 9% unemployment, that that basic bipartisan support for both open trade, together with strong worker reemployment assistance, should be changed or broken," he said.
The Obama administration renegotiated the South Korean free trade agreement to give more leeway to U.S. automakers, a change that won over many but not all skeptics within his Democratic Party.
The Republicans broadly support the South Korea deal but want to vote at the same time on trade pacts with Colombia and Panama, key U.S. allies in Latin America.
The Obama administration recently said it is ready with the Colombia and Panama deals after securing assurances on human rights.