Trade promotion bill clears Congress

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, June 24, 2015 - The Senate has cleared a trade promotion bill that will give President Obama the authority he says he needs to wrap up a trade agreement with Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim nations.

The 60-38 vote giving final congressional approval to the fast-track bill (HR 2146) was somewhat anticlimactic, given the fierce struggle in the Senate and House that had preceded it.

The Trade Promotion Authority bill, which sets negotiating objectives for new trade deals and establishes the congressional process for approving them, now goes to Obama for his signature.

The Senate's top pro-trade Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, said there's still time for Congress to consider the Trans-Pacific Partnership before the presidential campaign heats up in 2016, although the TPA process means it will be at least four or five months after the deal is finalized before Congress can vote on it.

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“We can have the votes on TPP certainly before the end of the year,” Wyden said, adding that the debate could be in the fall.

The text of the final agreement must be public for 60 days before the president can sign it. After that it will take another two or three months for the analysis to be completed before the deal goes before Congress.

Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, told reporters that the trade agreement should be easier to explain to constituents than TPA. 

Wyden was among 13 Democrats who were crucial to getting TPA past procedural votes in May and again on Tuesday that required a 60-vote majority.Wednesday's final vote required only a simple majority.

The passage of TPA represented a long-sought victory for agricultural interests who expect to be among the biggest winners from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“American farmers and ranchers lead the world in exporting food, fiber and energy products to customers near and far. But if this success story is going to continue, we must expand access to new markets across the globe,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Ron Prestage, president of the National Pork Producers Council, said the TPP would be one of the “most significant regional trade agreements ever.”

Richard Owen, vice president of global business development for the Produce Marketing Association, said his industry's international sales depend on eliminating trade barriers. “TPA provides a framework that builds confidence with our international partners and foreign governments that a deal negotiated will make it through the political process for approval."

The TPA legislation hit several snags, first in the Senate in May when Democrats briefly refused to let it advance, and then in the House when Democrats blocked passage by voting down a section that would have renewed Trade Adjustment Assistance programs.

By agreement with the White House, House GOP leaders stripped the TAA extension from the bill and passed TPA separately. The TAA extension was combined with a separate trade bill (HR 1295) that renews duty-free status, or preferences, for imports from poor countries. The Senate approved the TAA-preferences bill by voice vote Wednesday, but it still needed another vote in the House before going to Obama.

Administration officials say that having TPA was critical to getting Japan and Canada to make the final concessions, primarily around agricultural issues, needed to finalize the Trans-Pacific deal.

Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said that TPA was likely the most important legislation Congress would enact this year.

“It will help reassert Congress' role over U.S. trade negotiations and re-establish the United States as a strong player in international trade,” Hatch said.

But anti-TPA Democrats continued to raise concerns about the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio said the TPP “looks like it's going to be more of the same: corporate handouts, worker sellouts.”

The other Democrats who supported TPA were Michael Bennet of Colorado, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Tom Carper of Delaware, Chris Coons of Delaware, Dianne Feinstein of California, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Tim Kaine of Virgina, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Patty Murray of Washington, Bill Nelson of Florida, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Warner of Virginia.

Two of the Republicans running for president, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, voted against TPA. Cruz voted for the bill in May but switched sides this week when the legislation returned.

In a column for the conservative website Breitbart, Cruz ticked off several concerns with the legislation, including the possibility that the TPP could force the United States to increase immigration.

Cruz also expressed anger that that some senators were using their support for TPA as leverage to get a vote to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. Among other GOP presidential hopefuls, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina voted for TPA. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., did not vote.

The other three Republicans who opposed the bill were Susan Collins of Maine and Alabama senators Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby.

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