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Senate Advances Fast Track -- Again

By the smallest margin possible, the Senate Tuesday approved one more step toward giving President Barack Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), or fast track, that could speed up negotiations for a 12-nation trade deal later this year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) needed 60 votes to invoke cloture, which prevents a filibuster, so that TPA can be considered Wednesday and passed by a simple majority of the members. That’s exactly what McConnell got: a 60-37 approval. 

McConnell called the procedural vote an important day for the country, adding that when TPA reaches Obama’s desk for his signature, “it will indicate that America is back in the trade business.”

Before the vote, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a supporter of TPA, told reporters that McConnell had emailed Republican presidential candidates urging them to return to Washington for a close vote. Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas indicated that he was changing previous support for TPA to vote against cloture. And one Democrat who had supported TPA in a previous Senate vote was also switching to “no.”

In order to pass TPA, the Senate had to approve a House bill that didn’t include legislation that supports job training for workers displaced by trade agreements, called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). That made the small number of Democrats in the Senate who support TPA uneasy about the vote, since they had to trust Republican leadership to allow them to vote on a separate TAA bill this week. The Senate has already voted for a bill that combined TPA and TAA, but that legislation was rejected by the House, which passed a TPA without the job training provision. 

TPA remains strongly opposed by most Democrats in both the Senate and House, including Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who said after Tuesday’s vote, “We make decisions here today that will throw people out of work. We know that.” Brown said all labor unions, most environmental groups, and some religious organizations oppose TPA because of fears that the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership will destroy even more U.S. manufacturing jobs.

The Senate’s Majority Whip, Jon Cornyn of Texas, disagreed. 

“Trade is an engine of growth that keeps our economy growing,” he said, pointing out that Texas is the nation’s top exporting state, with an economy growing at more than 5%, about twice the national rate of GDP growth.

TPA and TPP are also strongly supported by most farm groups, including the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG).

Brett Blankenship, a wheat farmer from Washtucna, Washington, who is NAWG president, said in a statement after the vote: 

“We are extremely pleased the Senate showed their commitment to trade today as they prepare for a final vote on Trade Promotion Authority. We are one step away from providing U.S. wheat growers expanded opportunities through trade and strengthening relationships with our trading partners abroad. The U.S. is the single largest exporter of wheat in the world, and TPA renewal is essential to finalizing comprehensive trade agreements and putting the best deal on the table. I look forward to swift passage as this important bill goes before the Senate tomorrow.”

Many groups outside of agriculture weren't pleased with the Senate's vote on Tuesday.

The Institute for Public Accuracy cited one member of the Stop Fast Track coalition, Kevin Zeese, who predicted that "the Obama trade agenda that Congress is considering fast tracking through Congress will lower wages, export jobs, increase the wealth divide, and increase the trade deficit. This is the consistent history of trade agreements written for transnational corporations.”

The Institute also cited a recent CBS/New York Times poll that found a majority of Americans oppose “what the Congress and the President are pushing.”

Yet, a closer look at that poll suggests the public doesn’t understand TPA.

When the poll (in question 29) asked, “Do you favor or oppose giving the president authority to negotiate international trade deals that Congress can only approve or disapprove, but not change?” a 55% majority opposed TPA. But neither Republicans nor Democrats reflected the views of their representatives in Congress. TPA was opposed by 72% of Republican voters and favored by only 27%, perhaps reflecting the strong dislike of many Republicans for Obama. Democrats, on the other hand, back TPA 63% to 32% opposed, likely reflecting support for the president.

Republican Senate leader Cornyn pointed out Tuesday that TPA will last for six years, possibly granting fast track authority to a Republican president if one is elected in 2016.

In a separate question, few Republicans or Democrats (20% or less) expect the TPP to increase jobs in the U.S. A bigger plurality said that any trade agreement between the U.S. and Pacific Rim nations “won’t make much difference” in creating work in this country. And the largest group was uncertain about any effect the TPP will have on jobs in the U.S.

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