CAPITOL HILL - Leaders of a U.S. Senate panel have agreed on legislation to enhance President Barack Obama’s ability to negotiate trade agreements and to ensure that such pacts cannot be altered by Congress. If approved, the bill would boost efforts to forge a trade pact between the United States and 11 Pacific nations - and is already being blasted by American labor and environmental groups.
Obama’s trade representative is empowered to negotiate free trade agreements, but congressional approval of such pacts is fraught with danger. Any amendments Congress imposes could send all parties back to the negotiating table or sink an agreement altogether.
Trade promotion authority, or TPA, solves the problem by subjecting trade pacts to an up-or-down vote in Congress, with no amendments allowed. That authority existed in the 1990s, when the North American Free Trade Agreement was negotiated and approved, but has since expired.
Thursday, Republican and Democratic leaders announced agreement on a bill to restore TPA. Republican Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said, “The renewal of TPA will help American workers and job creators unlock new opportunities for growth and promote better, higher-paying jobs.”
The committee’s top Democrat, Ron Wyden, said, “Opening foreign markets is critical to creating new opportunities for middle-class American Jobs. This bill sets our country on the right track.”
The bill sets forth labor, environmental, and human rights standards designed to attract the support of lawmakers wary of free trade accords. Those measures do not satisfy America’s largest trade umbrella group, the AFL-CIO, whose president, Richard Trumka, said TPA “would lead to more lost jobs and lower wages.”
Environmental groups are also lining up in opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would be fast-tracked for approval under TPA. Karthik Ganapathy is a spokesman for the group 350.org.
“The trade agreement is a disaster for climate change. Our main objection is that TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] hands even more power to big oil. It is a climate disaster," said Ganapathy.
But Republican Senator John McCain says the Trans-Pacific Partnership is in America’s economic and geo-strategic interests.
“This vital trade agreement will open new opportunities for trade and level the paying field for American businesses and workers, while sending a powerful strategic signal about America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific," said McCain.
A fierce legislative battle over TPA lies ahead, with many progressive Democrats already lining up in opposition, along with some Republicans who worry fast track authority cedes congressional power to the executive branch.