A bipartisan Senate majority gave President Barack Obama an important victory last week in his quest for approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement with Japan and 10 other countries.
Fourteen Democrats joined 48 Republicans (including South Carolina Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott) to pass what is known as “fast track” authority by a 62-37 margin. The bill would restrict Congress to an up-or-down vote on trade legislation, with no opportunity to amend it. That means that a trade agreement could be negotiated by the president without fear that Congress would attach new conditions that could ultimately scuttle the accord.
The bill passed by the Senate, however, does not relieve the president of the duty to negotiate an agreement that will survive the up-or-down vote allowed under fast track.
President Obama responded to the good news from Capitol Hill by saying, “I want to thank senators of both parties for sticking up for American workers by supporting smart trade and strong enforcement, and I encourage the House of Representatives to follow suit.”
The Senate also rightly rejected two amendments to the bill that could have undermined the president’s negotiating authority. In the closest vote, a proposal by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a former U.S. trade representative, lost by a 51-48 count despite heavy backing by U.S. auto manufacturers. It would have required the president to crack down on alleged currency manipulations by trade partners designed to give a competitive advantage to their exports and was targeted mainly by Japanese and Korean automakers.
Another “poison pill,” proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was rejected by a 60-39 margin. The highly technical proposal would have banned a procedure common to all trade agreements allowing private suits against governments for engaging in unfair trade practices.
Congress has traditionally granted fast-track authority to the executive branch on trade deals — a recognition of other nations’ reasonable expectation that the accords they reach with our presidents won’t be rewritten by legislators. That custom’s restoration is not only a hopeful sign for the pending TPP agreement but could also open the door for a new round of global trade negotiations.
First, though, fast track must pass the House, where a significant number of Republicans and a large majority of Democrats sound opposed to it. The issue of Chinese currency manipulation will come up again, and American automakers have promised to push hard for restrictive rules.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has put President Obama on notice that he cannot rely on GOP votes alone to pass the fast track bill when it comes to the floor, warning: “The House will take up this measure, and Republicans will do our part, but ultimately success will require Democrats putting politics aside and doing what’s best for the country.”
The Senate bill is a practical acknowledgement that when federal lawmakers presume to micromanage trade deals, the chances of reaching positive —and necessary — agreements are vastly diminished.
And after years of partisan gridlock in Congress, the willingness of those 14 Senate Democrats to join Republicans in supporting this legislation is quite welcome.
Now it’s up to both parties in the House likewise to meet on common ground in facilitating common-sense presidential authority on international trade negotiations.