WASHINGTON, DC: A US Senate panel voted late Wednesday to give President Barack Obama authority to “fast-track” a massive Pacific trade accord, adding a provision opposed by the White House that addresses currency manipulation.
In a marathon debate, the Senate Finance Committee considered dozens of amendments to the so-called trade promotion authority (TPA) legislation, a bipartisan measure that supporters say is crucial to getting the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership — deemed the largest free-trade agreement ever — across the finish line.
The panel voted 20-6 in support of the TPA bill, with five Democrats bucking their president and voting in opposition along with one Republican.
The debate came as US officials negotiate the ambitious trade pact with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
If the fast-track measure passes the full Senate and House of Representatives, it creates a simplified mechanism for Congress to approve or reject any agreement negotiated by Obama, while preventing lawmakers from making changes.
The measure may have a tough road in the House.
“This bill has a long way to go” before it passes both chambers, House Speaker John Boehner said.
Senate Finance chairman Orrin Hatch pleaded with colleagues not to block the legislation.
Without it, he said, “our trading partners will not put their best offers on the table because they will have no guarantees that the agreement they reach will be the one that Congress votes on in the end.”
Supporters insist the TPP will level the playing field for American workers, and allow Washington to help write the rules of 21st century global trade rather than its economic rival China.
Critics argue that the TPP maximizes corporate profits, while killing American jobs and dismantling labor, environmental and safety standards.
Lawmakers inserted nearly 150 negotiating demands on the administration in their bill, mainly in intellectual property, labor law and the environment.
Senator Ron Wyden, the measure’s chief Democratic co-author, said promotion of human rights will be made a formal part of the negotiation objectives for the first time.
Lawmakers have long complained that trade pacts are negotiated in absolute secrecy, but the bill would require Obama to publicize the TPP text 60 days before it is signed.
No rubber stamp
Some on the Democratic left, allied with labor unions, are hostile to the pact, concerned that opening the US market will weaken America’s already declining manufacturing sector.
“Instead of rubber stamping the agreement, Congress and the public deserve a fair chance to learn what’s in the proposal,” said independent Senator Bernie Sanders.
Some Republicans joined Democrats in calling for enforceable currency provisions in the bill.
“One thing we all know here is, Chinese manipulate currency,” Senate Republican Richard Burr said as the panel weighed a measure requiring US authorities to consider countervailing duties against a nation deemed to be manipulating its currency value in order to gain a trade advantage.
“The question is, are we going to do anything about it?,” Burr added.
The amendment ultimately passed.
Obama earlier pushed back against TPP critics, saying those who slammed the accord as a bad deal were “wrong.”
Treasury officials insisted Washington has made progress in getting Beijing to intervene less in its currency and advocated not linking currency provisions to TPA.
Senator Chuck Schumer disagreed, saying “it’s time to do something that might actually solve this problem.”