Thursday, June 25, 2015

Senate Passes Fast-Track Trade Authority for Obama, but House Fight Looms

Union members and community activists protest the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Miami in March. (Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
After a lengthy debate, the Senate approved a contentious bill on Friday that would grant President Obama the power to speed up passage of trade deals, but a tougher battle is expected in the House.

The 62-37 vote to give the president so-called fast-track authority is a big boost for his top economic priority, bringing him closer to his goal of forging an ambitious Pacific free-trade accord known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The hard-fought legislation, which Senate Democrats initially blocked in an unusual rebuke of the president, now moves to the House where there appears to be considerably greater resistance from both Democratic leaders and some conservative Republicans.

Many Democratic lawmakers face enormous pressure to vote against fast-track, from constituents in their districts, organized labor and a hodgepodge of consumer groups representing doctors, the environment and an open Internet, among others.

The Republican leadership, while traditionally favoring free trade, has found itself in a rare position of cooperating with Obama, but some GOP members are still loath to give the president a greater hand on anything, let alone one that would help him seal America's biggest-ever trade deal.

“The real game is in the House,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which like other business associations is strongly behind fast-track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  “Frankly, the bigger problem is how many Republicans we're going to lose than how many Democrats we get.”

At this point, congressional insiders and analysts trying to handicap the House vote -- which could come as soon as early July -- say 17 Democrats have firmly come out in favor of fast-track.  About 190 Republicans, meanwhile, are known to be backing it, but where the remaining 55 House Republicans stand on the issue isn't entirely clear.  If all of the latter vote against fast-track and Obama doesn't win about a dozen more Democrats to his side, the president will fall short of the majority vote needed to succeed.

Fast-track, more formally known as trade promotion authority, is seen as essential to concluding the TPP.  The authority would allow the president to submit a negotiated pact knowing that Congress must vote it up or down with no amendments.  The White House says trading partners have been reluctant to show their final hand when there's risk the deal could be changed by American lawmakers.

The Pacific trade negotiations involve the U.S., Japan and 10 other nations that combined make up 40% of the world economy.  Their purported aim is to craft a comprehensive package that would not only remove tariffs but also devise rules and standards on things like intellectual property and cross-border data flows.

Obama has argued that expanding trade and investment opportunities in the Pacific Rim is crucial to American economic and geopolitical interests, especially in the face of a rising China.  But many Democrats are concerned that freer trade will hurt U.S. industries and jobs, and some high-profile opponents such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have sharply criticized the Trans-Pacific Partnership for both the secrecy in which negotiations have been conducted and certain elements of the proposed pact that have been shared with lawmakers under strict confidentiality rules.
A companion bill, to renew an expiring program of federal aid for workers disadvantaged by imports, passed by voice vote less than an hour after Wednesday's vote on fast-track.  Final approval of that bill in the House is expected on Thursday.

Read more at Senate Passes Fast-Track Trade Authority for Obama, but House Fight Looms

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