Finance

Senate panel approves trade bill

The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would streamline passage of global trade deals through Congress. 
 
The panel approved, on a 20-6 vote, a long-awaited trade promotion authority (TPA) measure with the support of seven Democrats, sending the measure to the Senate floor, where it will face another tough test in the coming weeks. 
 
The Democrats who voted to approve were Sens. Ron Wyden (Ore.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Tom Carper (Del.), Mark Warner (Va.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.).
 
The lone Republican to oppose was Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.).
 
{mosads}In the most contentious vote of the day, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) lost their bid — on an 11-15 vote — to include an amendment in the legislation that would have required the White House to include enforceable currency manipulation provisions in international trade agreements. 
 
Five Democrats — Cantwell, Nelson, Carper, Bennet and Warner — and 10 Republicans opposed the amendment.
 
Portman, a former U.S. trade representative, said the amendment was needed because the “playing field is tilted against us” and it would “allow our workers to compete.”
 
Stabenow argued the Obama administration’s process is “just not enough” to convince countries to make faster progress toward market-driven exchange rates.  
 
After markup, Portman said he will make another attempt at passing the rule in floor debate.
 
The White House has argued that requiring the addition of currency provisions would derail negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and likely jeopardize its passage in Congress. 
 
A Treasury official told the panel the department is “very concerned” adding currency rules to a fast-track measure would be counterproductive and possibly disrupt continuing negotiations. 
 
“We have serious concerns about the inclusion of enforceable currency provisions in this or any trade agreement,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday afternoon.
 
Lew has repeatedly asked Congress to tread lightly in pushing for provisions that could, in the end, do more to hurt U.S. workers than help.
 
“Enforceable currency disciplines would impair our already-successful efforts addressing currency practices through our bilateral and multilateral engagement and could grant other countries a legal basis to interfere with the flexibility of U.S. policymakers to take the steps necessary to protect jobs, support growth, and ensure continued price stability in the United States,” Lew said.  
 
In a letter to senators Tuesday, Lew said other trading partners “have made clear that they will not support the introduction of enforceable currency provisions in the context of trade agreements, and specifically, the TPP.”
 
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) went as far as to say if the amendment passes, “you could kiss TPP goodbye.”
 
“We’ve come a long way, and while I know the sincerity behind it, I think it makes it very difficult to carry this bill through,” Hatch said.
 
Wyden, the Senate Finance Committee ranking member, said the amendment runs the risk of putting the United States on the side of creating rules for global monetary policy and is “a bridge too far.” 
 
The contentious fast-track legislation has splintered congressional Democrats and put them at odds with President Obama and his bid to push through his trade agenda before he leaves office. 
 
The bill gives Congress an up-or-down vote on trade agreements and doesn’t allow amendments, a process that ensures trading partners that pacts won’t be changed on Capitol Hill. 
 
The Obama administration says the 12-nation TPP would shore up the U.S. economic and strategic presence in the Pacific Rim.
 
“If you want to have influence in Asia you have to pass this TPA bill to ensure that you get a good TPP,” Hatch said.
 
During the markup, Hatch warned lawmakers “to be careful not to amend” the six-year measure, so it wouldn’t differ from the version brokered last week by Hatch, Wyden and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). 
 
The Ways and Means Committee is slated to mark up the bill Thursday. 
 
The committee also easily approved a Trade Adjustment Assistance bill on a 17-9 vote that Hatch and others say will have to pass each chamber simultaneously. 
 
The panel approved, by a voice vote, a package that includes the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, the Generalized System of Preferences and continuing trade benefits for Haiti.
 
The panel also approved on a voice vote a customs enforcement measure that Wyden said includes the “most robust trade enforcement provisions in decades.”
 
The markup was delayed for five hours after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) used a procedural maneuver earlier in the day to stop all committee hearings until the Senate adjourned for the day. 
 
Although Portman-Stabenow failed to gain traction, the panel did approve two other currency amendments that were attached to the customs legislation. 
 
The first, on a 26-0 vote, was an amendment offered by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) that would block a country that illegally manipulates its currency from participating in future trade agreements. 
 
The panel also easily approved an amendment, on an 18-8 vote, an effort led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would impose duties on products from countries that have lowered the value of their currency against the dollar. 
 
Seven Republicans and Cantwell opposed the Schumer amendment.
 
Notably, Schumer said that after consulting other lawmakers, he decided not to push to include the amendment in the fast-track bill.
 
The House and Senate customs bills are different, so there is no guarantee that the currency provisions will survive through the expected conference process. 
 
In a letter to lawmakers on Tuesday, Lew said the Obama administration opposes current legislation, which is similar to Schumer’s amendment, “that would use the countervailing duty process to address currency undervaluation.” 
 
“The legislation raises questions about consistency with our international obligations, and other countries might pursue retaliatory measures that could hurt our exporters,” he wrote. 
 
Schumer called currency manipulation the “most significant trade challenge this country faces.”
 
He said the Obama administration has sold the TPP as a geopolitical necessity to ensure that the United States doesn’t cede more ground to China in the region. 
 
“It also makes sense, that as part of the overall effort, we also should deal with China head on to show them we will not continue business as usual in our direct trade relations with them as well,” Schumer said. 
 
He argued that TPP alone won’t provide the United States with the tools it needs to combat this specific challenge of currency manipulation,” he said. 
 
“It’s time to do something that might solve this problem,” Schumer said. 
 
The panel approved only one amendment to the bill that would promote human rights to a principal negotiating objective. The amendment was authored by Cardin.
 
The panel also approved, on a 16-10 vote, an amendment by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) that would not allow fast-track for certain countries on the State Department’s list of human traffickers. The list includes Malaysia, which is one of the TPP partners, according to Menendez’s office.

  
—This report was updated on April 23 at 11:33 a.m. 
Tags Ben Cardin Bernie Sanders Bill Nelson Charles Schumer Debbie Stabenow Jack Lew Maria Cantwell Mark Warner Michael Bennet Orrin Hatch Paul Ryan Richard Burr Rob Portman Robert Menendez Ron Wyden Tom Carper

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