Bipartisan fast-track trade bill clears Senate

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 22, 2015 - With crucial Democratic support, the Senate agreed to give President Obama fast-track negotiating authority to wrap up a 12-nation Pacific Rim agreement and complete a second deal with the European Union.

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The final, 62-37 vote, which came after a week of wrangling over amendments, gives the Trade Promotion Authority bill (HR 1314) momentum heading to a showdown in the House next month.

The “bipartisan Senate vote is an important step toward ensuring the United States can negotiate and enforce strong, high-standards trade agreements,” said Obama, who was personally involved in lobbying Democratic senators.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the vote "helped move America closer to securing responsible agreements that open markets for America's farmers, ranchers and agribusiness and create jobs and improve wages across the country.”

A bloc of 14 Democrats voted for the bill after having provided critical support to get the bill through a series of procedural votes.

“This bill can help us pry open booming markets for our exports,” said the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden of Oregon.

House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., predicted Sunday that the bill would pass the House, though it will likely need support from Democrats to overcome opposition among conservatives who think it cedes too much power to the president. After Friday's Senate vote, Ryan said that House passage would "require Republicans and Democrats coming together to do what is right for the country." 

Senate passage of the bill was a victory for farm groups and agribusiness interests that had joined President Obama in pressing senators to resist a series of amendments aimed at addressing currency manipulation and other issues.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, joined with Ohio Republican Rob Portman, who served as then-President George W. Bush's top trade negotiator, in pushing an amendment to sanction countries that manipulate their currency, but the provision failed, 48-51.

“Currency manipulation has cost 5 million jobs and counting. Enough is enough,” said Stabenow.

Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, argued that the amendment would scuttle the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and that Obama would veto the bill if the currency language were included.

The amendment was one of five that the Senate voted on Friday after spending much of the week arguing which of the more than 200 that were filed would receive consideration.

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Hatch prevented a vote on an amendment proposed by John McCain, R-Ariz., to block the Agriculture Department from implementing an inspection program for catfish. Hatch said the amendment was not germane.

Wyden unsuccessfully proposed votes on an additional 16 amendments, including one by fellow Oregonian Jeff Merkley, to deny fast-track status to any trade deals that don't protect U.S. country-of-origin labeling regulations.

Merkley proposed the amendment in response to the World Trade Organization's ruling against the labeling rules for meat.

The six-year TPA bill would ensure that trade agreements can get an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate without risk of amendments.

One of the most vocal critics of Obama's trade agenda Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., conceded earlier in the day that TPA had the votes to pass the Senate. But he said the Pacific Rim deal “is a continuation of failed trade policy, which has resulted in the loss of millions of decent-paying jobs in this country.”

Administration officials say Japan is waiting to make its final concessions in the TPP talks until they are assured the agreement will get fast-track status. Backers of the deal want to get it considered in Congress before the issue gets caught up in the 2016 campaign. Negotiations also are ongoing with the European Union.

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