Senate committee OKs fast-track trade bill
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WASHINGTON, April 22, 2015 - The Senate Finance Committee approved a bill to fast-track new trade agreements as the panel's leaders fought off bipartisan efforts to impose requirements on U.S. negotiators to attack foreign currency manipulation.
The Trade Promotion Authority bill, approved 20-6 Wednesday evening with the support of a majority of the panel's minority Democrats, now heads for a showdown on the Senate floor. The House Ways and Means Committee was scheduled to debate its companion bill on Thursday morning.
The Senate committee also advanced three others bills to extend Trade Adjustment Assistance programs for workers, businesses and farmers; duty-free treatment for imports from Africa and developing countries in other regions; and U.S. Customs enforcement measures.
One Republican, Richard Burr of North Carolina, joined five of the panel's 12 Democrats in voting against the TPA bill.
“With this legislation, our standards for trade agreements will be higher,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, the committee's top Democrat. “Our enforcement of trade laws will be much tougher and our workers will have the support they need.”
The Obama administration says passage of the TPA bill is critical to getting Japan and Canada to make concessions on their agricultural import barriers and other issues in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. The TPA process would be in effect for six years unless Congress takes action to end it.
The bill sets negotiating guidelines and disclosure requirements for trade deals and bars Congress from amending a trade agreement that has been submitted for approval.
Wyden and Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, repeatedly fought off amendments that were designed to address concerns that U.S. companies have been harmed by currency manipulation and low standards in other countries, including some that are part of the TPP.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and others failed several times to win approval for amendments aimed at forcing TPP member countries to adhere to the International Monetary Fund's currency standards.
At one point, Hatch said that if an amendment proposed by Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and backed by Stabenow would kill the TPP. Stabenow's response: If the amendment is a “poison pill,” then the TPP “shouldn't go through.”
The administration has warned that the restrictions the TPP critics want could open the Federal Reserve Board to charges that it manipulates the dollar through its economic policy.
Currency manipulation will also be a major issue when the Ways and Means Committee debates its bill on Thursday. The committee's ranking Democrat, Sander Levin of Michigan, has proposed a rival bill that includes a number of additional restrictions on trade deals and the fast-track process, including a requirement that an agreement to include enforceable currency manipulation provisions.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told the House committee Wednesday that the issue must be addressed “in a way that's effective and we have to do it in a way that doesn't ultimately undermine our interests.”
Levin's proposal, which reportedly will have the backing of the House Democratic leadership, also includes a number of other restrictions.
Besides Stabenow, the other four Senate Finance Democrats to oppose the TPA bill were Charles Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Robert Casey of Pennsylvania.
Two of the other trade bills that the Senate committee approved contain provisions addressing agricultural concerns, including one aimed at forcing South Africa to end anti-dumping duties on U.S. chicken imports.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., won approval of an amendment to the bill extending the African Growth and Opportunity Act and Generalized System of Preferences that would require the administration to review the South African issue within 30 days of the measure's enactment. The bill also would authorize the administration to selectively review whether a country is making progress in meeting eligibility criteria and strip the duty-free status.
"This should send a clear message to South Africa and their poultry industry that they will not be given a 'Get out of jail free' card every time AGOA rounds the turn to pass 'Go,'” said Mike Brown, president of the National Chicken Council. “It makes no sense for the United States to give special preferences to countries that treat our trade unfairly."
The Customs enforcement bill includes a provision intended to prevent Chinese honey from being smuggled through other countries to avoid U.S. duties. The provision requires Customs and Border Protection to compile a database of foreign honey characteristics for use in verifying the country of origin.