WASHINGTON — Key congressional leaders agreed Thursday on legislation to give President Obama special authority to finish negotiating one of the world’s largest trade accords, starting a rare battle that aligns the president with Republicans against a broad coalition of Democrats.
In what is sure to be one of the toughest fights of his last 19 months in office, the “fast track” bill allowing the White House to pursue its planned Pacific trade deal also heralds a divisive fight within the Democratic Party, one that could spill into the 2016 presidential campaign.
With committee votes planned next week, liberal senators such as Sherrod Brown of Ohio are demanding to know Hillary Rodham Clinton’s position on the bill to give the president so-called trade promotion authority, or TPA.
Trade unions, environmentalists, and Latino political organizations — potent Democratic constituencies — also quickly lined up in opposition, arguing that past trade pacts have failed to deliver on their promise and that the latest effort will harm American workers and the middle class rather than helping them.
The deal was struck by senators Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Finance Committee chairman; Ron Wyden of Oregon, the committee’s ranking Democrat; and Representative Paul D. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
It would give Congress the power to vote on the more encompassing 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership once it is completed but would deny lawmakers the chance to amend what would be the largest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, which President Clinton pushed through Congress despite opposition from labor and other Democratic constituencies. A separate trade accord with Europe is also in the works.
The largest beneficiaries of any trade deal would be business. While supporters have promised broad gains for American consumers and the economy, the clearest winners of the Trans-Pacific agreement would be US agriculture, along with technology and pharmaceutical companies, insurers, and many large manufacturers that say they could also expand US exports to the other 11 nations in Asia and South America that are involved.
The bill would ‘open even more new markets to goods and services backed by three proud words: Made in America.’President Obama
Obama embraced the legislation immediately, proclaiming “it would level the playing field, give our workers a fair shot, and, for the first time, include strong fully enforceable protections for workers’ rights, the environment, and a free and open Internet.”
“Today,” he added, “we have the opportunity to open even more new markets to goods and services backed by three proud words: Made in America.”
But Obama’s enthusiasm was tempered by the rancor the bill elicited from some of his strongest allies. To win over the key Democrat, Wyden, the Republicans agreed to stringent requirements for the deal, including a human rights negotiating objective that has never existed on trade agreements.
The bill would make any final trade agreement public for 60 days before the president signs it, and up to four months before Congress votes. If the agreement, negotiated by the US trade representative, fails to meet the objectives laid out by Congress — on labor, environmental, and human rights standards — a 60-vote majority in the Senate could shut off “fast-track” trade rules and open the deal to amendment.
“We got assurances that USTR and the president will be negotiating within the parameters defined by Congress,” said Representative Dave Reichert, a Washington Republican and a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee. “And if those parameters are somehow or in some way violated during the negotiations, if we get a product that’s not adhering to the TPA agreement, then we have switches where we can cut it off.”
To further sweeten the deal for Democrats, the package includes expanding adjustment assistance — aid to workers whose jobs are displaced by global trade — to service workers, not just manufacturing workers. Wyden also insisted on a four-year extension of a tax credit to help displaced workers purchase health insurance. And, negotiators vowed to extend trade aid to Africa and Haiti.
Both the Finance and Ways and Means committees will formally draft the legislation next week in hopes of getting it to final votes before a wave of opposition can sweep it away. “If we don’t act now, we will lose our opportunity,” Hatch said.
At a Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and Michael Froman, the US trade representative, pleaded for the trade promotion authority.
“TPA sends a strong signal to our trading partners that Congress and the administration speak with one voice to the rest of the world on our priorities,” Lew testified.
Even with the concessions, many Democrats sound determined to oppose the president. The AFL-CIO and virtually every major union also have vowed a fierce fight.