The US House of Representatives on Thursday reversed course, approving “fast-track” legislation central to US President Barack Obama’s trade deal with Pacific Rim nations and sending it back to the US Senate.
The close vote in the House, which last week rejected a related bill, kept alive Obama’s goal of bolstering US ties with Asia through a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the economic element of a foreign policy shift aimed in part at countering the rising influence of China.
The House voted 218 to 208 to give Obama the fast-track authority to speed trade deals, including the TPP, to conclusion with reduced interference from Congress.
The TPP would encompass 40 percent of the global economy and is close to completion, but the outlook in the US Senate for fast-track, seen by Japan as crucial to sealing the deal on TPP, was uncertain.
Senate aides said support among Democrats hinged on another trade issue, the Export-Import Bank, which may have to close at the end of the month.
The House’s vote was its second in less than a week on fast-track, which would restrict lawmakers to a yes-or-no vote on trade deals. Democrats last week blocked it by voting down a companion measure to extend aid for workers hurt by trade.
That was a slap in the face to Obama, who urged his fellow Democrats to support fast-track and the worker assistance program, despite skepticism among Democrats close to labor unions about the impact of trade deals on US jobs.
In an unusual alliance, the president and Republican House Speaker John Boehner turned last week’s loss into a win by excising the worker aid program that was voted down by the House.
That neutralized the ability of some Democrats to use it to stymie fast-track and capitalized on support from a bloc of 28 pro-trade Democrats.
Those House Democrats resisted intense pressure from unions, after House and Senate Republicans — who generally oppose the worker support program — promised to attach the worker assistance bill to a separate bill.
The trade package still faces three more congressional votes, including two in the Senate, which took nearly two weeks last month to approve fast-track and worker aid.
“The House took the hot potato and threw it back to the Senate,” said Lori Wallach of consumer group Public Citizen, which has been campaigning against fast-track.
Many Democrats fear trade deals such as the TPP would cost US jobs as employers chase lower costs in signatory nations.
Republicans, who generally favor trade, do not have the muscle to pass fast-track on their own, especially in the Senate, where a super-majority is needed for major legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took steps to attach the worker aid program to a bill that renews trade benefits for African nations, setting up votes next week. He said there were enough votes to pass the fast-track and aid bills separately.
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said that pro-trade Democrats were determined to pass both fast-track and the worker aid program.
“We’re having almost around-the-clock meetings to make sure the process is such that it actually will happen,” Wyden said.
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