Lawmakers reach deal to move Obama trade agenda
Congressional leaders announced Thursday they had reached a deal on legislation that, if approved, would speed consideration of President Obama’s trade agenda.
The fast-track legislation, formally known as trade promotion authority, would make it easier for the administration to negotiate trade deals by preventing Congress from amending them.
It could ease negotiations on an agreement with 11 Latin American and Asian countries known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that would be the largest trade deal for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.
Finishing the deal, a top priority for the White House, would almost be impossible, however, if the other trading partners thought a final pact would be changed by Congress.
The new legislation was announced on Thursday afternoon by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking member on the Finance Committee who has been negotiating closely with Hatch.
To win Wyden over, Republicans are agreeing to also approve a new Trade Adjustment Assistance program, a government effort designed to help workers who lose their jobs because of trade. The program has been paired in the past with votes on fast track.
“For me, the heart of this is to have a modern trade policy that is going to work for hard-working middle-class Americans,” Wyden told reporters. “And it’s going to provide a path for them to have more high-skill, high-wage jobs.”
He said the bipartisan bill creates “what I expect to be unprecedented transparency in trade negotiations, and ensures future trade deals break new ground to promote human rights, improve labor conditions and safeguard the environment.”
Democrats are badly divided on trade, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and other liberals loudly protesting the president’s plans. A report by The Hill earlier this week suggested as few as 15 Democrats in the House were prepared to vote for fast track, and unions and other liberal groups have mounted an early offensive against the fast-track bill.
President Obama praised the long-awaited legislation that “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.”
“It would level the playing field, give our workers a fair shot, and for the first time, include strong fully enforceable protections for workers’ rights, the environment and a free and open internet,” the president said in a statement.
Wyden told reporters that he had reached an agreement with Hatch and Ryan for each chamber to vote on fast-track and TAA bills on the same day they take them up so lawmakers are assured they will move together.
TAA expands help to those in the service sector and its includes a healthcare tax credit, that allows people to pay only a portion of their health insurance if they lose their jobs because of trade.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) applauded the legislation for strengthening “Congress’s authority by clearly defining negotiating objectives and spelling out a detailed oversight and consultation process to achieve a final agreement.”
The 113-page bill extends fast-track for three years, with an option to renew an additional three years.
“If we don’t act now we lose our opportunity,” Hatch said at the panel’s second hearing of the day.
Wyden touted the inclusion of a procedure to give Congress a process to revoke fast-track procedures if the White House fails to meet TPA requirements, saying calling the provision one of the stickiest issues and a key part of why he backed the deal.
Essentially, it would give any member of the House or Senate — without the approval of leadership — the ability to push for removal of fast-track if they think the White House has not consulted fully with Congress.
“I felt very strongly about the role of ongoing congressional oversight every step of the way,” Wyden told reporters.
Also, the measure would require the president to publish trade agreements, starting with TPP, 60 days before signing it, giving Congress and the public more time to weigh in on the final product.
“Chairman Hatch and I have been active for over six months on a weekly basis trying to put in place modern trade policy to get us out of this time warp,” Wyden said.
The bill also makes labor and environmental standards enforceable under a dispute resolution process and promotes human rights initiatives in countries that the United States joins in trade agreements.
Fast-track also would ensure that U.S. law can’t be changed without congressional action so there is “no back door for corporations to skirt U.S. law.”
Introduction of the legislation will set off a difficult fight within the Democratic party to win the votes to get Obama fast track, particularly in the House.
While Wyden has signed on to the bill, the ranking Democrat on Ryan’s committee, Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), is not a part of the deal.
“Unfortunately, the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan trade promotion authority does not move us toward a stronger TPP agreement that will garner broad, bipartisan support in Congress,” Levin said in a statement.
Hatch and Ryan hailed the new legislation as a mark of bipartisanship.
“If we want to have a healthy economy with better jobs and bigger paychecks for more families and individuals, we must engage with other nations through trade,” Hatch said.
He argued that the United States has fallen behind other countries without fast-track, which Obama has never had in his presidency.
“This is a smart, bipartisan compromise that will help move America forward,” he said.
Ryan said the bill would make sure that Congress would have a say in the negotiations undertaken by Obama.
“The bill makes sure that Congress will set the priorities in our trade agreements, and it includes unprecedented accountability, transparency, and enforceability measures,” he said.
Hatch earlier on Thursday said that the yet-to-be-unveiled legislation contains 150 negotiating objectives and said his committee will carefully review if the White House has met each one.
The unveiling of a fast-track proposal could spur quick action on several delayed or soon-to-expire trade initiatives.
The additional bills, which the Senate Finance Committee might bring up during a possible markup next week, would provide for renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) while continuing trade benefits for Haiti.
In addition, House and Senate aides said that a customs and enforcement measure is still in the works and could be packaged with some of the other trade bills.
This story was last updated at 6:33 p.m.
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