Obama trade powers on fast track for debate Lawmakers from both parties agree president needs authority, but faces dissent
Top lawmakers struck a bipartisan deal Thursday to grant President Obama fast-track trade negotiating authority, potentially paving the way for a massive free trade agreement with Asia and igniting what is likely to be the top fight of the 114th Congress.
The bill could be a major part of Mr. Obama’s legacy, but first he’ll need to deliver dozens of Democratic votes in the face of vociferous objections by labor unions and liberal pressure groups, who already have declared it a makeor-break vote.
Meanwhile, Republicans will have to surmount a smaller rebellion from conservatives who balk at giving Mr. Obama any additional powers.
Months in the writing, the agreement, which will need to clear both chambers, would give the president power to negotiate trade deals and then submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote — a much cleaner process than the alternative of letting Congress rewrite deals after they have been submitted, which would make it almost impossible to negotiate with other nations.
“Opening foreign markets, where most of the world’s consumers reside, is critical to creating new opportunities for middleclass American jobs,” said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, who worked the deal with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and committee chairman, and with Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House committee.
It’s the latest sign of bipartisan agreement in Congress, after deals on Iran’s nuclear program, an education overhaul and doctors’ payments under Medicare.
But opposition is quickly building among Democrats, and progressive groups have declared the looming fight a defining battle for the party.
“There is simply no excuse for any Democrat who votes for fast track,” said Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America, one of the pressure groups. “Like a vote for the Iraq War or statements of support for the Social Security-cutting Bowles-Simpson plan, a vote for fast track and the TPP will never be forgotten and will haunt members of Congress for years to come.”
Known as trade promotion authority, or fast-track authority, the bill is critical to having the president be able to complete negotiations on the Asian trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Fast-track authority also could help the president seal a European trade deal, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would try to square U.S. and European Union regulatory rules.
Republican leaders hope to push the fast-track authority through committee in the next weeks, potentially setting up floor fights in the House and Senate this spring and early summer.
Presidents have had fast-track authority for decades, but the power, last granted in 2002, lapsed in 2007. The latest bill would grant a three-year authority, with an optional three-year extension to take it through the term of the next president.
Mr. Obama vowed that he will use the authority only to strike deals that are good for American workers, but said U.S. leadership on trade is essential.
“At a moment when 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we must make sure that we, and not countries like China, are writing the rules for the global economy,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “The bill put forward today would help us write those rules in a way that avoids the mistakes from our past, seizes opportunities for our future and stays true to our values.”
The bill is shaping up as a battle between proponents of the borderless technology economy and the more traditional manufacturing economy.
Backers point to statistics that show 20 percent of American jobs are already tied to trade, and those jobs on average pay significantly more than work not related to trade.
Opponents say recent trade deals, beginning with the North American Free Trade Agreement, have displaced American workers and ceded control over parts of the U.S. economy to international bodies.
“Opening foreign markets, where most of the world’s consumers reside, is critical to creating new opportunities,” said Sen. Ron Wyden.