The Senate approved a bill granting the president trade promotion authority (TPA) Friday, which would severely restrict the Senate’s ability to block future trade deals.
The bill now heads to the House, where its passage is uncertain because of opposition from wary Democrats and skeptical Republicans. (RELATED: Rep. Dave Brat Perfectly Explains GOP Skepticism Of Fast Track Authority)
Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch called it, “likely the most important bill” the Senate will pass this year. “It shows when the president is right, we’ll support him,” he said on the floor just before passage.
President Barack Obama says he needs TPA to conclude a massive trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which he is currently negotiating with 11 other countries. And the Republicans backing him up say TPA is key to future free trade agreements that will benefit the U.S. economy.
But critics contend it’s a dangerous concession of Senate power to the executive branch. (RELATED: Why Are Senate Republicans So Eager To Cede Their Trade Authority To Obama?)
TPA would give Congress more power to shape the trade agreement by defining specific objectives the president must work toward in a deal, and by setting new transparency rules that would enable a more rigorous public debate.
But once the president submits a deal to Congress, TPA greatly restricts the Senate’s ability to block or complicate the deal. The Senate would have to promptly approve or reject the deal with no chance to amend the bill and only 20 hours of debate. Just 51 votes would be required for passage, which is a far cry from the 61 votes required for major legislation or the 67 votes required for treaties.
Some Republicans and Democrats are concerned about granting fast-track authority given the secrecy surrounding TPP. The text of the deal Obama is negotiating can only be viewed in a physical location by members and advisers with a security clearance. (RELATED: Obama Wants Critics To Take His Word On TPP)
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions has read the TPP text and expressed concern about a “living agreement” provision that suggests the president could unilaterally change the deal after it’s been approved by Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not allow a vote on an amendment from Sessions to strike that provision.
Other members object to TPA because it doesn’t sufficiently address the currency manipulation that countries use to compete unfairly with the U.S. in the global economy.
An amendment adding strict and enforceable currency manipulation rules to the bill, offered by Republican Sen. Rob Portman and Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, was rejected. Republicans warned such strong language could kill TPP and start a damaging trade war, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warned Obama might veto the bill if it was included.