Fast-track trade bill clears key Senate hurdle

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, May 14, 2015 - With significant Democratic backing, the Senate moved forward on legislation to fast-track new trade agreements that the Obama administration is negotiating with the Pacific Rim and the European Union.

In a victory for the White House and Republicans, the Senate voted 65-33 on Thursday to begin debate on the fast-track legislation, which is being combined with a bill to extend Trade Adjustment Assistance programs to aid workers, businesses and farmers harmed by imports. The cloture vote required at least 60 votes.

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Some 13 Democrats voted in favor of advancing the bill, which could give the measure a boost in the House, where the final vote is expected to be closer than in the Senate.

The legislation had been temporarily held up Tuesday when the pro-trade Democrats demanded that Republicans also wrap in an enforcement measure and a bill to extend duty-free provisions for imports from developing countries in Africa and elsewhere. The GOP agreed to schedule votes on those two measures ahead of the cloture vote on the fast-track, Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill.

The enforcement measure, approved 78-20, includes a provision aimed at curbing currency manipulation by other countries, an issue that has been repeatedly raised by opponents of the fast-track bill.

Senate debate on the fast-track legislation will continue next week, and because of the open amendment process that Republicans promised, may not finish before the Memorial Day recess, said GOP Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House likely wouldn't take up its version of the legislation until after the week-long recess.

“More trade means more jobs,” said Boehner. “When the Senate completes its work on this important legislation the House will follow suit.”

He said he didn't know yet whether the TPA and TAA bills would be separated or kept together.

Under a deal with the Senate Finance Committee's ranking Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, the TAA is supposed to move in tandem with the fast-track measure. Many Republicans oppose extending the TAA programs but say they accept it as a cost of getting Democratic support for TPA.

With the fate of the fast-track legislation still in doubt in the House, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and USTR's agricultural negotiator, Darci Vetter, met with farm groups at the White House to encourage them to step up their lobbying efforts. The administration officials pressed their case that Japan is waiting on passage of TPA to make its final concessions in negotiations on the 12-nation Pacific Rim pact, according to one attendee, Randy Spronk, president of the National Pork Producers Council.

Despite the enforcement measure's broad Senate support, the White House continues to register concerns about the currency manipulation provisions, which would allow antidumping duties to be imposed on violators.

The provisions “would undermine our international efforts to address this issue, raise highly problematic questions about consistency with our international obligations, lead to other countries pursuing retaliatory measures that could hurt our exporters, and be difficult to administer,” the White House said in its statement of administration policy.

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Honey producers won provisions in the bill that are intended to help the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol stop Chinese honey from being shipped through third countries to avoid antidumping duties. A provision that Thune added to the legislation in committee also would require Customs to distribute interest on the duties to affected honey producers.

The Africa trade bill, which was approved 97-1, includes provisions sought by U.S. chicken producers to ensure that South Africa ends antidumping duties on American poultry.

A committee amendment sponsored by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., would require the Obama administration to review South Africa's response to the dispute within 30 days of the bill's enactment.

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