Senate advances fast-track trade bill sought by Obama

By Richard Cowan

Washington (Reuters) – President Barack Obama moved closer to winning the power to speed trade deals through the Congress, as the Senate on Thursday advanced legislation important to his Asian trade push.

Senators voted 62-38 to set up a speedy decision on the “fast-track” trade negotiating authority the president needs to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

The TPP is part of Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia, a strategy to counter China’s rising economic and diplomatic clout in Asia.

Obama called the vote “a big step forward,” adding that his trade agenda dovetails with the “strong labor standards, strong environmental standards” that his fellow Democrats in Congress are demanding.

Thirteen of 44 Democrats backed the legislation in the Senate’s second procedural vote. Some supported moving ahead with fast-track after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, assured them he would set a vote next month on a bill to renew the Export-Import Bank’s charter, according to leading Democratic senators. The charter is due to expire at the end of June.

They were joined by 49 of 54 Republicans, giving supporters of the legislation more than the 60 votes needed to proceed in the 100-member Senate.

With some of the Senate’s arcane procedural underbrush cleared away, senators tried to focus on amendments to the bill

some of them contentious – and there could be yet another procedural vote requiring 60 supporters.

Senate leaders spent much of Thursday seeking agreement on which amendments to the bill would be considered on the bill that McConnell was aiming to pass by week’s end, with only a simple majority needed to pass it.

Under fast-track, Congress can approve or reject trade deals such as the TPP, with 11 other countries ranging from Japan to Chile, but not amend their contents.

But the path is not clear yet. Amendments could include controversial sanctions on trading partners that manipulate their currencies, a move opposed by the partners.

The White House has said it will veto the bill if lawmakers insist on penalties. It instead prefers a diplomatic approach to dissuade countries from deliberately weakening their currencies to make exports cheaper.

The TPP, which is near completion after more than five years of negotiations, would create a free trade zone covering 40 percent of the world economy. Trading partners have said they want to see fast-track enacted before finalizing the pact, a goal the administration has set for this year.

Japanese Economy Minister Akira Amari said on Friday that a ministerial meeting on TPP would not take place next week and that it was uncertain when it would be scheduled.

“Unless there is a clear prospect for passage of the TPA(trade promotion authority) bill in the United States, we won’t be able to conclude the trade talks even if we held a ministerial meeting,” Amari told a news conference.

Chief negotiators from the 12 TPP countries are trying to bridge gaps for a deal at a meeting in Guam that will run through to May 28. But ministers would need to meet to clinch an accord.

The fast track bill must also pass the House of Representatives, where an even tougher fight is expected. Some conservatives oppose giving the White House more power, and many of Obama’s Democrats worry about the impact on jobs and the environment.

Obama has campaigned aggressively for fast-track over objections from the left wing of the Democratic Party, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, the influential liberal from Massachusetts.

Warren is pushing an amendment to take away fast-track authority for any TPP deal that allows companies to sue foreign governments, which critics say would allow them to dodge health and environmental standards.

Supporters of the provisions argue they will keep governments from discriminating against foreign investors.

The pact is the biggest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement freed up trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico.

More than two decades later, many blame that deal for factory closures and job losses, and see the TPP as producing more of the same.

(Additional reporting Anna Yukhananov, Jason Lange Krista Hughes in the U.S. Stanley White and Yuko Yoshikawa in Tokyo. Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Steve Orlofsky and Simon Cameron-Moore)

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