A U.S. Senate panel is poised to approve legislation to facilitate the formation and approval of an ambitious Pacific region trade pact.
“This is truly a historic bill,” said Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, Finance Committee chairman. “U.S. trade with foreign countries is a good thing. We need to be tearing down barriers to American exports, while at the same time creating enforceable rules for our trading partners.”
The committee was expected to approve Trade Promotion Authority with bipartisan backing later Wednesday. TPA, also known as “fast track”, sets forth congressional goals and benchmarks when trade deals are negotiated but, once completed, subjects them to up-or-down votes in both Republican-led chambers with no amendments allowed.
TPA is viewed as critical for approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership involving the United States and 11 other nations that, combined, account for about 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. Initial negotiations began more than a decade ago and have been extended repeatedly as more nations came to the table.
With portions of the negotiations believed to be nearing the finish line, U.S. lawmakers are weighing in.
“Over the next decade and a half, the global middle class is going to balloon by more than two billion people, and they are going to be spending an awful lot of money,” said Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the Finance Committee’s top Democrat. “I want those billions of people to buy products designed and built buy Oregonian and American workers, and get those workers high-wage, high-skilled jobs in a tough global economy.”
Others note that Hatch and Wyden introduced TPA late last week and accuse them of rushing to approve the bill without giving lawmakers adequate time to examine its many provisions and potential consequences.
“They want to fast-track this ‘fast track’ legislation so they can pass more trade agreements that outsource jobs,” said Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown. “Trade done right can create jobs, but our current deals amount to corporate handouts and worker sell-outs.”
Opponents of TPA point to prior trade deals approved under “fast track” like the North American Free Trade Agreement that went into effect more than 20 years ago with mixed economic results. While backing the expansion of trade as a general principle, President Barack Obama has said that previous deals did not always “live up to the hype.”
Wyden says current TPA legislation addresses prior shortcomings. “The 1990s playbook on trade has to go. Our trade policies in 2015 have got to work better for America’s middle class,” he said. “Our country is going to aim higher in trade agreements. Our trade enforcement will be much tougher, and the process of negotiating and voting on agreements will be more transparent, will be more open, more democratic.”
If approved by the Finance Committee, the bill would go to the full Senate, where furious debate is expected.
“The answer is not only ‘no’, but ‘hell no’,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid when asked about TPA Tuesday.
Full Senate approval would have to overcome a likely procedural maneuver by opponents attempting block a vote. The so-called filibuster would likely delay but not prevent passage. Approval in the House of Representatives is viewed as all but assured.