POLITICS

Senate Grants Obama Fast-Track Trade Authority After Contentious Battle

06/24/2015 04:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015
NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The Senate made it official on Wednesday, granting President Barack Obama the power to streamline passage of major trade pacts with Pacific Rim nations and the European Union by a vote of 60 to 38.

The approval of Trade Promotion Authority doesn't guarantee the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal Obama is currently negotiating with 11 other nations, but does make the agreement's path forward far easier by barring Congress from filibustering or amending whatever deal Obama reaches.

The fast-track bill, which was approved by the House last week, will now head to President Barack Obama's desk to be signed into law.

The vote to approve TPA, also known as "fast-track," was virtually guaranteed on Tuesday, after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) secured the 60 votes necessary to clear a Democratic filibuster. The final approval of the legislation comes after weeks of legislative maneuvering during which Democrats nearly derailed the bill.

Critics of the administration's trade platform had viewed the TPA bill as their best opportunity to stymie Obama's agenda. Labor unions, environmental groups, Internet freedom advocates and the overwhelming majority of congressional Democrats have battled Obama over concerns that TPP and other pending trade agreements will exacerbate income inequality and empower corporations to challenge important rules and regulations. The fast-track powers approved by the Senate on Wednesday will last for six years, making them available to the next president.

Obama, Republican leaders and corporate interests, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have pushed hard for the fast-track bill, arguing that it will lead to trade deals that boost economic growth. As one of the only areas of ideological overlap between Obama and the GOP-controlled Congress, trade may prove to be the final instance of substantive legislating in the Obama era.

“The legislation that will soon be signed into law will rightly enhance Congress’ oversight over both the administration and the trade negotiation process as it moves forward, and it will also ensure our ability to scrutinize and render a verdict on any trade deal inked by this administration or the next one," McConnell said in a statement following the vote.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the leading Democratic supporter of fast-track, praised the Senate for passing Obama's trade agenda.

"It’s a good day for American workers, a good day for American communities and a good day for governance because senate showed you could get a significant measure of trust behind a major economic initiative," Wyden said.

Shortly after the passage of TPA, the Senate passed legislation combining Trade Adjustment Assistance and a bill providing trade perks to countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The package passed by voice vote and is now headed to the House. TAA, which offers financial aid and job training to American workers who lose their jobs due to foreign competition, has long been a target of Republican derision, and served as a flashpoint for legislative drama earlier this month.

Although they generally support the TAA program, House Democrats realized they had the capacity to knock down the fast-track bill by voting against TAA, since the two were packaged together. The defeat was an embarrassing setback for Obama and for a time appeared to have dealt a fatal blow to his agenda.

House Republicans pushed ahead last week, however, approving a standalone fast-track bill that did not include TAA. While most House Democrats voted against the standalone bill, a host of Senate Democrats declined on Wednesday to adopt that strategy, signing off on the bill on the promise from Obama, McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that TAA would be approved soon after.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a staunch opponent of TPP and fast-track, said on Wednesday that it made sense to vote for for the worker aid bill and the rest of the trade package, since his colleagues had already sealed the deal on TPA.

"I mean these are things I’m for and most everybody is for. I want to do trade enforcement. I want to do trade adjustment assistance," Brown told reporters after the vote. "These are things we agreed with all along, so why make people stay to just go through the process?"

When fast-track legislation first hit the Senate floor last month, Brown mounted an offensive against it, pushing hard to defeat it but ultimately failing. Although the fast-track legislation is on its way to Obama's desk, Brown is looking to the next fight, which will come when the final TPP agreement reaches Congress.

"TPP is absolutely not a foregone conclusion," Brown said, adding that his fight against the agreement has "started already." Brown took to the Senate floor just before the final votes to begin laying out his grievances with the TPP negotiations.

Earlier on Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she would support the separate TAA bill, which is expected to result in nearly unanimous Democratic support in the lower chamber. This means Boehner will need to deliver at least 39 GOP votes on TAA, assuming all Democrats vote in favor, to make good on his commitment.

Labor unions have battled the fast-track bill, concerned that expanded trade relationships with low-wage countries like Vietnam will drive down worker pay and ship jobs overseas. But some of the most bitter battles in the fast-track debate have been over regulatory policy. Doctors Without Borders called TPP "the most damaging trade agreement we have ever seen in terms of access to medicines for poor people" -- a response to leaked drafts of the deal, which reveal that it would grant pharmaceutical companies long-term monopolies on prescription drugs, thus dramatically driving up prices.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has targeted TPP's enforcement mechanism, a process known as Investor-State Dispute Resolution, which allows corporations to sue governments before an international tribunal over regulations that curb their profits. Her concerns are shared by a host of other experts.

Pressed on whether he was worried about retaliation from unions like the AFL-CIO, which fiercely oppose trade deals like TPP as well as fast-track powers for Obama, Wyden dismissed the concern.

"My judgement has been always try to do what’s right and the politics works out," he said.

Obama has aggressively pushed back against his critics, particularly Warren, calling TPP "the most progressive trade deal in history."

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