WASHINGTON — A program that could help thousands of laid-off workers get re-educated — at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to taxpayers — will expire Saturday without action this week from Congress and President Barack Obama.
The program, an updated version of the Trade Adjustment Assistance act, provides re-education assistance and financial benefits to workers who were displaced because of international trade. Last year, more than 280,000 laid-off workers qualified for help across the country.
"This represents the best of federal programs at making America globally competitive," said Andy Levin, the acting director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. "It says to our people that lose their jobs, 'You're not refuse. We're not kicking you to the curb. We want you to jump into school, get some new skills and get back in the game.' "
Textile giant North Carolina was the nation's top user of TAA assistance for years, but it dropped back in the last fiscal year to Michigan and other manufacturing states that were hit by declines in the auto industry. Last fiscal year, Michigan received $94.6 million for the program, while North Carolina received $56 million.
The extension hadn't drawn significant controversy on Capitol Hill. The Republican chairman, Rep. Dave Camp, and the top Democrat, Rep. Sander Levin, on the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee are both from Michigan, and House Speaker John Boehner hails from hard-hit Ohio.
The House was expected to pass an extension Tuesday afternoon, but GOP leaders pulled the measure from the floor, reportedly because of a dispute over whether the government was getting too involved in the economy.
Among those that oppose the bill is the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group in Washington that calls the TAA program duplicative, overly generous and unfair because it singles out workers who were hurt by foreign trade.
"Our country can neither afford this program, nor should the government be in the business of providing such a benefit," the Club for Growth says on its blog.
In the Senate, Democrats Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown of Ohio hope to bring up the bill on the Senate floor Thursday for unanimous consent.
The Obama administration also supports extending the program.
If funding ends Saturday, workers could lose 26 weeks' worth of financial assistance. They'd see a cut in federal aid to pay health insurance premiums, and thousands of employees who were laid off from service jobs no longer would be eligible for help.
The bills this week would extend TAA funding only through June 30, but many lawmakers are pushing for a more permanent extension, even as Congress is trying to cut back spending elsewhere.
"With the looming trade deals we have coming up, I see more people losing their jobs as a result," said Rep. Larry Kissell, D-N.C., a former textile worker who supports extending the program.
Some governors, manufacturing associations and community colleges have lobbied Congress hard in the past week, saying the expanded program still is needed to retrain workers in new industries.
The Trade Adjustment Assistance program was approved in the early 1970s and expanded in 2002 to focus on workers who'd been laid off from manufacturing jobs because of trade. The money was used to pay for education retraining and to offer financial assistance while beneficiaries were in school.
The program was expanded again with the stimulus act in 2009 after Obama's election. Renamed the Trade and Globalization Adjustment Assistance Act, the program added workers who'd been laid off from service jobs. It also extended financial aid another six months and offered a heftier health insurance benefit.
In all, the annual appropriation available to states went from $220 million to $575 million.
Manufacturing layoffs still make up the brunt of the new TAA beneficiaries, composing 80 percent of the workers approved for the assistance last fiscal year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
In a letter this week to House leaders, 11 governors said that 42 percent of the workers covered by TAA qualify because of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act expansion.
For seven years, North Carolina led the nation in the number of workers being helped by the Trade Adjustment Assistance act.
Last fiscal year, the decline in the auto industry expanded the map. Nearly 35,000 Michiganders were approved for TAA assistance last fiscal year, according to the Department of Labor. The Great Lakes State was followed by Indiana, Ohio, California, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
"It's just a crucial program," said Andy Levin, whose father, Rep. Levin, helped push through the legislation. "It's sort of a model program because it provides everything you would need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get training."
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