WASHINGTON – The Senate reversed course and agreed Thursday to allow debate on a bill that will allow President Obama trade promotion authority in negotiating two big trade agreements that he wants to be hallmarks of his time in office.
Earlier this week, Senate Democrats banded together to block discussion of the legislation that the Democratic president says is crucial to his trade agenda.
Concerns about U.S. job losses, enforcement of anti-dumping rules and currency manipulation by foreign countries drove the earlier negative vote. But a deal reached to vote on a separate currency manipulation and enforcement bill and package together trade promotion with efforts to retrain American workers displaced by free trade agreements attracted enough Democrats to vote with Republicans to produce a 65-33 margin. That was five more than the 60 approval votes required under Senate rules to begin discussions of trade promotion, also known as fast track.
The authority lets the White House negotiate trade agreements and gives the House and Senate a set period of time to vote up-or-down on those agreements without the ability to amend them.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken of Minnesota both voted no, as they did Tuesday.
"I believe the fast track authority legislation advanced in the Senate today falls far short of ensuring that trade agreements will truly benefit Minnesota workers, communities, and businesses," Franken said in a statement after the vote. "At home, we've seen what happens when we don't have — and just as importantly, can't — enforce strong trade protections: countries like China unfairly dump their goods into our country, and as a result, 1,000 Minnesotan jobs are on the chopping block."
A Klobuchar spokeswoman said she "remains concerned that the bill doesn't go far enough to protect American workers. She is working on several amendments to strengthen the final legislation, which currently lacks many important provisions, including preventing the illegal dumping of foreign steel that has had a major impact on workers on the Iron Range, or addressing currency manipulation."
Many trade experts say trade promotion authority is necessary to allow negotiators from multiple countries to make binding commitments and concessions. It has been granted to various U.S. presidents since 1974.
The U.S. is currently engaged in negotiations in the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership involving Pacific rim nations and the 28-country Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership involving members of the European Union.
The White House praised the Senate's actions Thursday, saying Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) would enable the U.S. to expand economic opportunities.
Cargill, General Mills, Medtronic, Target and 3M are among Minnesota's major corporate citizens pushing the current free trade agreements.
"We are glad the Senate was able to overcome some initial obstacles and to move Trade Promotion Authority forward," Devry Boughner Vorwerk, Cargill's vice president of corporate affairs, said in a statement. "The Senate needs to continue to move forward with TPA. Otherwise they risk locking the U.S. out of some of the fastest-growing regions in the world."
Labor unions and some environmentalists expressed disappointment.
"By voting away their authority to set trade negotiating objectives, the majority of our Senators chose corporate polluters over the American people," a spokesman from Friends of the Earth said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.