- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2015

Top lawmakers struck a bipartisan deal Thursday to grant President Obama fast-track trade negotiating authority, potentially paving the way for a massive free trade agreement with Asia and igniting what is likely to be the top fight of the 114th Congress.

The bill could be a major part of Mr. Obama’s legacy, but first he’ll need to deliver dozens of Democratic votes in the face of vociferous objections by labor unions and liberal pressure groups, who already have declared it a make-or-break vote.

Meanwhile, Republicans will have to surmount a smaller rebellion from conservatives who balk at giving Mr. Obama any additional powers.

Months in the writing, the agreement, which will need to clear both chambers, would give the president power to negotiate trade deals and then submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote — a much cleaner process than the alternative of letting Congress rewrite deals after they have been submitted, which would make it almost impossible to negotiate with other nations.

“Opening foreign markets, where most of the world’s consumers reside, is critical to creating new opportunities for middle-class American jobs,” said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, who worked the deal with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and committee chairman, and with Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House committee.

It’s the latest sign of bipartisan agreement in Congress, after deals on Iran’s nuclear program, an education overhaul and doctors’ payments under Medicare.
But opposition is quickly building among Democrats, and progressive groups have declared the looming fight a defining battle for the party.

“There is simply no excuse for any Democrat who votes for fast track,” said Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America, one of the pressure groups. “Like a vote for the Iraq War or statements of support for the Social Security-cutting Bowles-Simpson plan, a vote for fast track and the TPP will never be forgotten and will haunt members of Congress for years to come.”

Known as trade promotion authority, or fast-track authority, the bill is critical to having the president be able to complete negotiations on the Asian trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Fast-track authority also could help the president seal a European trade deal, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would try to square U.S. and European Union regulatory rules.

Republican leaders hope to push the fast-track authority through committee in the next weeks, potentially setting up floor fights in the House and Senate this spring and early summer.

Presidents have had fast-track authority for decades, but the power, last granted in 2002, lapsed in 2007. The latest bill would grant a three-year authority, with an optional three-year extension to take it through the term of the next president.

Mr. Obama vowed that he will use the authority only to strike deals that are good for American workers, but said U.S. leadership on trade is essential.

“At a moment when 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we must make sure that we, and not countries like China, are writing the rules for the global economy,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “The bill put forward today would help us write those rules in a way that avoids the mistakes from our past, seizes opportunities for our future and stays true to our values.”

The bill is shaping up as a battle between proponents of the borderless technology economy and the more traditional manufacturing economy.

Backers point to statistics that show 20 percent of American jobs are already tied to trade, and those jobs on average pay significantly more than work not related to trade.

Opponents say recent trade deals, beginning with the North American Free Trade Agreement, have displaced American workers and ceded control over parts of the U.S. economy to international bodies.

“In northeast Ohio, I have watched as steel mills have closed, I have sat in union halls and empathized with families who have lost their jobs due to downsizing, and I have watched communities struggle to recover from a loss of industry,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, Ohio Democrat. “We cannot stand by and allow this administration to end-run around Congress in order to pass a wide-reaching trade agreement that could prove just as destructive as those that came before it.”

Backers have tried to sweeten the deal for reluctant Democrats by promising assistance for workers who lose jobs as a result of trade agreements. They also said the fast-track legislation requires continual consultation with Congress while the administration is negotiating any deal, and sets strict goals that any deal must meet for it to be submitted to Congress.

A trade deal would have to prove that it advances human rights goals — a standard that has never been included in fast-track laws. Countries negotiating deals with the U.S. also would need to prove that they aren’t manipulating their currency for a trade advantage. Congress has been locked in a yearslong struggle with the administration over whether to charge China with currency manipulation.

The fast-track legislation also insists that U.S. law cannot be changed without action by Congress — an effort to allay fears that international trade organizations could impose their own solutions on the U.S. economy.

“The bill makes sure that Congress will set the priorities in our trade agreements, and it includes unprecedented accountability, transparency and enforceability measures,” Mr. Ryan said.

Business groups said the deal is the only way for the U.S. to stay competitive with the rest of the world.

“In today’s tough international markets, we need our trade negotiators to tear down the foreign tariffs and other barriers that too often shut out U.S. products,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue.

AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, reflecting the labor umbrella group’s long opposition to free trade treaties, slammed the bill Thursday, saying it would push down U.S. workers’ wages and outsource jobs.

“Trade deals have wide-ranging impacts and shouldn’t be negotiated behind closed doors and then rubber-stamped,” said Mr. Trumka. “A deal this big should be debated in a full and open manner like every other piece of legislation. Working people are showing tremendous courage standing up to the low-wage, corporate agenda. It’s time for politicians to do the same.”

Jonathan Soch contributed to this report.

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