WASHINGTON — President Obama’s trade agenda jumped another hurdle Thursday.
After stumbling in Congress at its first step, the President’s efforts received a major boost when the Senate overcame a procedural hurdle to begin debate on the controversial presidential Trade Promotion Authority, after breaking a stalemate that had stalled the bill and advancing three other trade measures.
Industry trade groups lauded the Senate’s actions, which will pave the way for key elements of Obama’s trade agenda to advance. Proponents of TPA, seen as a linchpin to finalizing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, voted 65 to 33 — five votes over the required 60-vote threshold — to allow debate to begin. TPA has been paired with Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that helps workers displaced by trade, in one package.
TPA allows Congress to set negotiating objectives and consultation requirements for the executive branch, but also limits lawmakers to an up or down vote on trade deals. This is seen as vital to completing negotiations on the TPP between the U.S. and 11 other countries, including Vietnam, the U.S.’s second largest apparel supplier, because it allows foreign governments to make their best offers knowing Congress cannot tear apart a final deal.
The Senate will now start debating TPA and could potentially vote on the legislation as early as next week. If approved, it will then move to the House, where contingents of Democrats and Republicans have voiced opposition.
Thursday’s actions came two days after Senate Democrats blocked debate on TPA, demanding that other trade measures be voted on in conjunction with the bill. But Senate leaders struck a deal Wednesday that cleared the path for the other trade bills.
A customs and trade enforcement bill that includes provisions to confront currency manipulation passed the Senate a vote of 78 to 20. Another bill, which passed 97 to 1, is a trade preference measure that would renew or extend benefits to sub-Saharan African countries, Haiti and other developing nations. Specifically, it will extend the African Growth & Opportunity Act for a decade, renew the Generalized System of Preference program that expired in July 2013 to a range of countries and extend trade benefits in the Hope and Help programs for products from Haiti through September 2025.
“The American people sent divided government to Washington, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t want us to work together on issues where we can agree, and on this issue we agree,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R, Ky.) “Today’s vote moves us closer to achieving a positive outcome for the people we represent, and I look forward to continued positive engagement for both the President and members of both parties as we move forward on these bills.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), said, “The Senate has begun to develop a powerful and bipartisan message that the trade policy of the 1990s will be unacceptable in 2015. For example, in the NAFTA era, American priorities like the rights for working families and environmental protections were an afterthought and they were stuck in unenforceable side agreements. With this legislation, they will be bedrock elements of future trade agreements….For the first time, these labor and environmental protections will be fully enforceable.”
Industry groups, which have long lobbied Congress to advance trade measures they say open markets for their member companies, welcomed the Senate’s actions.
“TPA’s combination of increased congressional authority and oversight and a new procedural framework for consideration of trade agreements makes it far more likely that measures such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will become law,” said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation. “TPA is essential to tearing down the barriers to trade that drive up prices for consumers and limit export and import opportunities for businesses.”
T-TIP is a trade pact being negotiated between the U.S. and the European Union.
Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, said it was encouraging “how quickly the Senate moved to approve the preference bill, extend AGOA, GSP and the Haiti benefits and how quickly they moved on the Customs bill so that now we finally can begin a substantive discussion about Trade Promotion Authority.”
Juanita Duggan, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said successful conclusion of trade agreements with Europe and the Pacific Rim “will help U.S. industries like ours access new markets and new customers.”
Even the National Council of Textile Organizations, not always a free-trade advocate, commended the Senate for passing the trade preference and customs enforcement legislation, but urged the Senate “to pass a clean TPA bill without harmful amendments that will damage U.S. textile jobs, manufacturing and exports.”