Washington: US lawmakers has voted to advance a stalled free trade pact with South Korea, but divisions remains rife with Senate Republicans vowing to block it in a dispute with President Barack Obama.
Key committees of the House of Representatives and Senate supported the deal in so-called markups, giving a green light for Obama to submit the largest US free trade pact in a generation that would slash 95 per cent of tariffs.
But Senate Republicans voiced anger that Obama plans to attach the agreement to a renewal of benefits for workers who lost jobs due to foreign competition, saying he is trying to please unions that oppose the Korea deal.
"I support the South Korea trade agreement implementing bill and want it to pass. I strongly support it," said Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Democratic-led Senate Finance Committee.
"But I cannot condone this abuse of Trade Promotion Authority or turn a blind eye to dubious domestic spending programs," Hatch said, referring to the president`s power to submit trade deals without potential changes by Congress.
The Senate committee, where Democrats hold a majority, approved the trade pact alongside the workers` aid. The House Ways and Means Committee, led by Republicans, also voted for the pact but without the attached assistance.
Representative Dave Camp, a Republican from Michigan who heads the House committee, offered a compromise under which he would support both the trade deal and assistance if submitted separately.
Camp, who negotiated with the White House, said he secured "significant reforms" to the aid known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA and that it would be fully offset by spending cuts amid worries over the US debt.
"Despite questions about how the House, Senate and administration proceed on TAA, one thing is perfectly clear: we cannot afford to let these trade agreements languish any longer," Camp said.
"The rest of the world is fast moving forward, and we risk losing market share and jobs if we fail to act," he said. A free trade agreement between South Korea and the European Union, negotiated after the US deal, took effect last week.
The committees also looked at trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. But the Colombia agreement faces opposition from House Democrats who are concerned about a history of deadly violence against labour unions in the country.