Obama's trade agenda back on track
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WASHINGTON, June 18, 2015 - A bill that would clear the way for President Obama to wrap up a 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal could be headed to his desk by the end of next week after bipartisan talks broke a House impasse.
The House approved the Trade Promotion Authority bill, 218-208, on Thursday following days of negotiations involving Obama, the GOP congressional leadership and pro-trade Democrats. The Senate could have a final vote on the measure as soon as Wednesday, clearing it for the White House.
"The world is looking to America for leadership, and today, with a bipartisan vote, the House delivered,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
A broader, Senate-passed trade bill bogged down last Friday after the House rejected a section that would extend Trade Adjustment Assistance programs, which are set to expire Sept. 30. Democrats worried about the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Obama is negotiating saw voting against TAA as their only way to scuttle the deal.
The solution was to split the bill and pass the TAA extension separately from TPA.
The House then approved the new TPA bill (HR2146) on Thursday afternoon, with the support of 28 Democrats including several from districts with farming and agribusiness concerns. Among them: Ron Kind of Wisconsin, Brad Ashford of Nebraska, Jim Costa of California and Kurt Schrader of Oregon. Fifty Republicans voted against the measure.
“We are again encouraged by the House's commitment to TPA and encourage the same commitment from the Senate,” said Wade Cowan, a Texas farmer who is president of the American Soybean Association.
“With TPA in hand, we now turn our attention to finalizing an agreement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership that includes vital export markets for U.S. soybeans and meat products, as well as the developing markets that grow in their demand for American soy every day,” Cowan said.
TPA would ensure that Congress cannot amend the Trans-Pacific deal, only vote it up or down, once the administration finishes negotiating the agreement.
The TPA bill details a number of negotiating objectives that the administration is supposed to address in the TPP and another agreement being negotiated with the European Union, including a provision requiring countries to have a “science-based justification” for any food safety and agricultural regulations that exceed international standards.
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The president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, Jim Mulhern, said that enacting TPA will “signal that the United States is serious about trade negotiations.” Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association said new trade agreements would "open markets, create economic opportunities at home and abroad and promote trade balance for the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry."
The TAA extension is be attached to another bill (HR 1295) that would extend laws that provide duty-free status, or “preferences,” for imports from developing countries.
Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he hopes that both bills will be sent t,o Obama by the end of next week.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of 14 Democrats who voted for the earlier trade bill that combined TPA and TAA, said she expected all of them to support the new version of the fast-track bill.
A key to breaking the impasse was figuring out how to enact the extension of TAA programs, which are set to expire Sept. 30. Obama met for more than an hour Wednesday with many of the pro-TPA Democrats to discuss the new plan, which calls for delaying final action on TAA until TPA clears Congress, said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who was in the meeting.
By ensuring that the fast-track bill is enacted first, anti-TPA Democrats will no longer have any reason to vote against TAA, he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Thursday set up an expedited process for getting both the TPA and preferences bills to final votes next week. The ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., made it clear that Democrats would also insist on enactment of a Customs and trade enforcement bill, but he stopped short of saying what the sequence had to be. Differing versions of the Customs bill (HR 644) have passed both the House and Senate, and so a final version will have to be negotiated.
The pro-trade Democrats briefly help up the TPA-TAA bill in the Senate in May until they received a commitment for votes first on the Customs and preferences bills.
“Senate Democrats feel strongly that all … of the bills happen,” Wyden said.