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Senate committee passes fast track trade bill, but major challenges ahead (+video)

The Senate Finance Committee passed the trade bill Wednesday night. The House is expected to take up a similar bill Thursday.

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    U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, before the Senate Finance Committee hearing on fast track authority. Major labor unions and business groups clashed Tuesday over President Barack Obama's bid for "fast track" authority to advance trade deals being negotiated with numerous nations.
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A Senate committee has taken the first step in Congress toward granting President Obama “fast track” authority to negotiate trade deals by passing a bipartisan fast-track bill on Wednesday night. A House committee will take up a similar bill Thursday morning.

Despite relatively strong support for the bill in the Senate Finance Committee – it passed 20 to 6 and now heads to the Senate floor – it faces fierce opposition from many Democrats in both chambers. In the House, a significant number of Republicans also oppose the bill, making that an even harder sell for the president.

The Democratic rift over trade split wide open this week as the legislation began to make its way through committees.

On Wednesday, the progressive icon from Massachusetts, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, hit back at Mr. Obama for his comment the day before that she was flat-out “wrong” on the issue. In a blog post, she sharply criticized the secrecy of the administration’s trade negotiations with 11 Pacific nations (not including China) in what would be the largest trade deal in US history.

“Let's send a loud message to our trade officials: No vote on a fast-track for trade agreements until the American people can see what’s in this TPP deal,” she wrote, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal being negotiated by the administration.

Senator Warren’s liberal ally from Vermont, independent Sen. Bernard Sanders, acted on that Wednesday by using a parliamentary rule to temporarily block the Senate Finance Committee from meeting – even as the panel was gearing up to pass the bipartisan legislation the president seeks. On Tuesday, Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said he was a “hell no” vote on the bill. But he said he would not move to block the bill on the Senate floor.

As Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, Obama’s point man on trade in Congress, put it at a Monitor breakfast last Friday: “Trade has never been for the fainthearted.”

The good-humored senator worked for more than six months to craft a bipartisan, bicameral bill with key Republicans that grants the president authority to negotiate deals that Congress can approve or disapprove but not amend or filibuster – hence, the “fast track” moniker. 

The White House maintains it needs fast-track authority because nations otherwise hesitate to make concessions during negotiations, fearing interference from Congress. The administration, back by the business lobby and agriculture, supports free trade agreements as a way to grow the economy and jobs. It also says that a Pacific trade agreement will check China’s growing geopolitical power.

For both Democrats and Republicans, currency manipulation by China and Japan is a key concern because it makes foreign imports cheaper and US exports more expensive – costing American jobs.

On Wednesday, the Senate committee approved strengthened rules against currency manipulation by foreign countries in related trade legislation -- though not on the fast-track bill itself. The administration opposes adding strong currency manipulation measures to trade legislation, saying it will derail trade negotiations and lead to retaliation and trade wars.

Senate committee chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah says he has “no doubt” the bill will pass the full Senate. If all Republicans vote for it, and that’s not a given, at least six Democrats would have to back it to reach a 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster. 

At the Monitor breakfast, Senator Wyden said “I think everyone understands that there is a long, long way to go” on the bill's journey through both chambers.

As Wyden seeks to convert doubters, his main message is that the fast-track bill of today is not the one of the 1990s that led to the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement. 

Today's bill, he says, is “modernized” to make labor and environmental standards core requirements that are enforceable. It also delivers “unprecedented” transparency that provides for negotiation updates and allows members of Congress and the public four months to read an entire deal before Congress votes.

An accompanying bill that covers job training and education assistance for people adversely affected by trade augments that assistance and adds service workers to those covered.

“This is a fresh approach to trade policy that’s going to work better for the middle class and create high-skill, high-wage jobs in Oregon and across the country. This is not the same old 90’s playbook for trade,” Wyden said in a statement after the bill passed his committee with the support of several Democrats.

Wyden points to a global middle class that’s going to “balloon” by more than 2 billion people over the next 15 years. They will be buying computers, cars, medical products, and agricultural goods, and Wyden – and the president – want them to be American goods.

But some Democrats aren’t buying that argument. Senate Finance Committee member Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio, who initially filed 88 amendments to try to reshape the bill, called the changes from previous decades “minor.”

Senator Sanders – not on the committee – lambasted the state of wages and lost jobs from trade. Agreeing with Senators Warren and Reid, as well as labor unions, he said fast-track was moving too fast through Congress. In a letter to US Trade Representative Michael Froman, he outlined his concerns.

“Americans should not be forced to compete against desperately poor workers like those in Vietnam who make as little as 56 cents an hour,” he wrote.

On that long road ahead described by Wyden, the bill could have an even bumpier ride in the House than in the Senate. The Associated Press cited Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma, who estimates that about 180 to 200 House Republicans will vote for fast track, along with 15 to 30 Democrats. If The lower range of that estimate prevails, the bill would fall short of a majority in the 435-seat House.

On Wednesday, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California said she will support a substitute trade bill put forward by Rep. Sander Levin (D) of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. He opposes the bipartisan bill worked out by Wyden, Senator Hatch, and Ways and Means chairman Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin.

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