WASHINGTON - As debate intensifies over whether to give Congress and the president the ability to "fast-track" proposed free trade agreements with Pacific and European countries, many Democrats and labor unions continue to champion a little-known program that provides financial assistance to American workers laid off as a result of increased international competition.

Conservatives say the Trade Adjustment Assistance program is ineffective, costs too much and should be abolished. But a former steel worker who spoke with VOA said not only does the program work, it should be expanded.

Sparrows Point -- in southeast Baltimore -- former home of the Bethlehem Steel Mill --  is a major steel producer that once employed as many as 30 thousand Americans.

Michael Smith was a crane operator here for 13 years. It’s the first time he’s been back in two years.

"I remember what this place used to be.  I remember the sights, the sounds, the tractors," said Smith. "It’s actually hard physically standing here. I mean, my heart hurts."

The mill shut down in 2012 -- the victim of a series of business decisions made worse by increasing global competition.

That left Smith and 2,500 plant workers with no jobs and few marketable skills.

“I was blessed enough to find a program called TRA [Trade Readjustment Allowance] and TAA [Trade Adjustment Assistance], which is a union bargain benefit that was provided to us.”

The program gave Smith a weekly stipend -- and he used his retraining allowance to pay for books and tuition fees. He graduated from college in May with a bachelors degree in Psychology.

"I want to be a counseling psychologist, and I’m hoping that all of the pain and hurt that I experienced by losing my job of 13 years here at the steel mill – I’m hoping I can channel that into helping others in the community," he said.

Despite Smith's success with the program, many conservatives say TAA is wasteful and ineffective.

CATO Institute trade policy analyst Dan Ikenson said that for every job lost to trade, 30 jobs are lost for other reasons. He spoke to VOA on Skype.

“My first question is, why should we treat people who lose jobs or can tie their job loss in some way to trade any differently than we treat other people who lose their jobs?” asked  Ikenson.

Ikenson insisted that trade creates more winners than losers. Instead of government assistance, he said manufacturers are better suited to retrain displaced workers.

“They complain a lot about the dearth of skilled workers, and if they were incentivized to hire people just to train them in exchange for them agreeing to work, maybe for a year or two afterwards, that might work a lot better than trade adjustment assistance does.”

The Senate is scheduled to vote on whether to extend the $400-million program as part of a fast-track bill to expedite pending free trade deals with Pacific countries. But it's likely to face stiff opposition from the Republican majority in Congress.