WASHINGTON, April 23, 2015 – The stage is now set for floor fights over whether to fast-track a pair of new trade agreements.

The House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday night approved, 25-13, a Trade Promotion Authority bill one day after the Senate Finance Committee advanced its version of the legislation, which guarantees that trade deals can get an up-or-down-vote in Congress without any chance of being amended. To smooth the way for eventual enactment of the bill, the House committee adopted a pair of amendments that had been added to the Senate version Wednesday.

Two Ways and Means Democrats, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Ron Kind of Wisconsin, voted with the majority Republicans to approve its TPA bill (HR 1890). The Senate Finance Committee’s version was approved 20-6 with support from seven of the panel’s 12 Democrats. 

Even as the House panel debated Democratic amendments attacking the TPA measure Thursday afternoon, President Obama made an impassioned plea for his trade agenda in a speech to liberal activists with Organizing for America, an offshoot of his campaign operation.

“We’re not going to stop a global economy at our shores. We can’t go back to the past ... We want to make sure we win the future,” he said.

Obama said the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership nearing completion would be the “highest standard … most progressive trade agreement in our history.”

Administration officials say 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 TPP negotiations. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has been in Japan this week working on the TPP deal ahead of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington next week.

“They are waiting for us to do this so they can put their best and final offers on the table,” said Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

The TPA legislation is likely to be on the House and Senate floors in the next few weeks. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., backs a broad Democratic substitute developed by Sander Levin, the ranking member of Ways and Means, but she stopped short Thursday of saying she would oppose the TPA bill the committee approved.

Members of both the Senate and House committees received assurances from the chairmen that the agricultural negotiating objectives in the TPA bill would be used to address the European Union’s restrictions on biotech food. The European Commission proposed this week to allow its member states to opt out of importing EU-approved biotech food and feed.

[Following global trade? We cover it on Agri-Pulse. Sign up today for a four-week free trial subscription.] 

The TPA guidelines are intended to “ensure that our trade agreements address a full range of barriers that our biotech producers face, commercial, regulatory or otherwise,” a point that would be spelled out in the committee’s report that accompanies the bill, Ryan told Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb.

The bill doesn’t address biotechnology specifically but says countries should be required to have a “science-based justification” for any food safety and agricultural regulations that exceed international standards.

Ryan frustrated Democrats by using a procedural issue to deny them a vote on a Levin’s  substitute bill, which would impose tougher requirements on U.S. negotiators and made it easier for opponents of a trade deal to strip it of its fast-track status.

Levin, who called TPA a “blank check” to the administration, complained that the committee bill’s negotiating guidelines lacked teeth, citing in particular the agricultural objective that calls for eliminating or reducing tariffs on U.S. commodities. “Japan has already agreed to reduce,” Levin said. “The question is how much they will eliminate.”

He said his substitute amendment would have required Japan to eliminate virtually all of agricultural tariffs.

Levin, D-Mich., also said of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, “In some areas, vital areas, we do not know where USTR is headed and in other cases we don't like' where they are.

On party-line votes, the committee rejected an array of Democratic amendments attempting to put various restrictions on the U.S. negotiators, including one proposed by Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., that would prohibit TPP countries from exporting food to the United States that doesn’t “meet or exceed U.S. standards” for safety, pesticides, packaging and labeling.

“We’re putting our citizens at risk with this bill and don’t tell me we’re not, “ Pascrell argued, pounding the table. Smith responded that it was already illegal to import food that doesn’t meet U.S. standards.

The committee also rejected on near party-line votes a pair of amendments to enforce currency disciplines on Japan and other countries that will be part of the TPP deal. Kind was the lone Democrat to vote against the amendments, which the administration has warned could backfire on the United States.

The administration has warned that currency enforcement rules Democrats want could be used by other countries to attack the Federal Reserve Board’s quantitative easing policy intended to stimulate the economy.

“If we do it wrong we invite lawsuits in retaliation against the United States,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas.