Congress gives Obama fast-track trade talk power


Af­ter weeks of leg­isla­tive clashes Congress handed U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama a ma­jor pol­icy vic­tory Wed­nes­day, giv­ing him au­thor­ity to rapidly con­clude a Pa­cific trade ac­cord ve­he­mently op­posed by many in his party.

Buck­ing po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion, the Demo­cratic pres­i­dent re­lied on his Repub­li­can ri­vals to help re­al­ize the top eco­nomic pri­or­ity of his sec­ond term: cre­at­ing a 12-na­tion tran­sPa­cific free-trade area aimed at open­ing new mar­kets for U.S. ex­ports in coun­tries like Ja­pan, Chile, Aus­tralia and Viet­nam.

Obama’s own party has re­belled, wor­ried about a re­peat of the 1990s North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment, which led to large num­bers of man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs go­ing to Mexico, where la­bor costs were dra­mat­i­cally lower.

But af­ter a ma­jor trade pack­age in­clud­ing so-called trade pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity (TPA) stalled in Congress this month, the White House and Repub­li­can lead­ers se­cured the nec­es­sary votes to ad­vance at least the TPA mea­sure.

The Se­nate voted 60 to 38, with 15 pro­trade Democrats join­ing all but five Repub­li­cans to ap­prove the mea­sure.

Up-or-Down Vote

TPA ex­pands Obama’s pow­ers to ne­go­ti­ate the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship and other trade deals and present them to Congress for an upor-down vote, with­out law­mak­ers able to pick apart the ac­cord.

The Se­nate also passed a bill re­in­stat­ing a worker aid pro­gram known as Trade Ad­just­ment As­sis­tance (TAA), and on trade ben­e­fits for de­vel­op­ing na­tions, mainly in Africa.

The TAA mea­sure still re­quires pas­sage by the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, where a vote could come as early as Thurs­day.

The White House has sig­naled both bills on the pres­i­dent’s desk.

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell hailed TPA pas­sage as a “win” for the mid­dle class.

“Achiev­ing this pos­i­tive out­come was never go­ing to be easy but it proves that the power of a good idea, no mat­ter where it comes from, can win out over the sta­sis of grid­lock,” he said.

Last week the House nar­rowly passed TPA, which would re­main valid un­til 2021, de­spite fu­ri­ous op­po­si­tion by most Democrats.

The re­sis­tance to the trade pact comes mainly from tra­di­tional Demo­cratic al­lies: or­ga­nized la­bor, en­vi­ron­men­tal groups and hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions, many of whom warn it could trig­ger a “race to the bot­tom” on wages and jeop­ar­dize en­vi­ron­men­tal and rights stan­dards.

The mech­a­nism for re­solv­ing dis­putes be­tween states and multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions is also a ma­jor stick­ing point in the ne­go­ti­a­tions with Brus­sels as the United States and Euro­pean na­tions hash out a huge transat­lantic trade deal.

it wants

“This body should not give up its au­thor­ity to amend trade agree­ments, should not pave the way for a trade deal that looks like it’s go­ing to be more of the same: cor­po­rate hand­outs, worker sell­outs,” Sen­a­tor Sher­rod Brown, who helped lead the charge against TPA, warned col­leagues.

Fast-track au­thor­ity is not new. Ev­ery pres­i­dent in the last 40 years has used it and it will al­low Obama to guar­an­tee trad­ing part­ners that the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP) will not be carved up in Congress.

Brown scorn­fully noted how NAFTA promised 200,000 jobs in two years.

“Thank you, Pres­i­dent Bush 1, and thank you, Pres­i­dent Clin­ton, for that. We lost 680,000 net jobs,” the Demo­crat said.

Fight Not Over

Obama and “pro-trade” Democrats say a new TPA is a ma­jor im­prove­ment, no­tably through its 150 ne­go­ti­at­ing ob­jec­tives in­clud­ing on in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, la­bor and hu­man rights, trans­parency and cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tion.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion will have to pub­lish the full text of any trade ac­cord 60 days be­fore Congress can vote on it.

While Pres­i­dent Clin­ton in 1993 promised that NAFTA would cre­ate a new global eco­nomic or­der, Obama in­sists that with the Pa­cific ac­cord, the United States and its al­lies will be writ­ing the new global trade rules, rather than China.

Top House Demo­crat Nancy

Pelosi, an Obama ally who de­fied him, said the fight for work­ing fam­i­lies was not over.

“Now our fo­cus must be on the Tran­sPa­cific Part­ner­ship and House Democrats will be shin­ing a bright light on the pro­vi­sions of TPP as the ne­go­ti­a­tions pro­ceed.”

The trade de­bate no doubt car­ries into the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, par­tic­u­larly among Democrats.

Pressed by lib­eral in­de­pen­dent Sen­a­tor Bernie San­ders, who is fer­vently op­posed to the trade deal, Demo­cratic fron­trun­ner Hil­lary Clin­ton sug­gested last week she would have voted against fast-track au­thor­ity.

But she has re­frained from de­nounc­ing TPP, an ac­cord she once de­fended while sec­re­tary of state.


In this June 17 file photo, U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama looks out as he sits on stage at the Warner Theatre in Washington.

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