The government on Thursday welcomed the passage of a U.S. bill to give President Barack Obama fast-track trade authority, a move seen as crucial to finalizing the landmark 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
Speaking to reporters in Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the bill’s passage through the U.S. Congress a “major step forward.”
Japan will “display our leadership, together with the United States, and aim for an early conclusion (of the TPP),” he said.
Congress finally passed the bill Wednesday in 60-38 vote after staunch resistance from many members of Obama’s own Democratic Party, which is generally critical of free trade.
It is hoped that the step will speed up negotiations between Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim countries so the free trade deal, a central plank of Obama’s Asia-Pacific policy, can be finalized later this year.
“The 12 countries will now move significantly toward a broad agreement,” said economic and fiscal policy minister Akira Amari, who is in charge of the TPP talks, said.
Amari repeated that July was the effective “time limit” for convening a ministerial session and cutting a broad deal, given the political schedules in the negotiating countries.
Sadayuki Sakakibara, chairman of Keidanren (the Japan Business Federation), also welcomed the move. “For an early conclusion of the TPP talks, Japan and the United States need to jointly lead the negotiations,” he said in a statement.
Sakakibara noted that time is limited for sealing the TPP by the end of the year.
The bill for so-called trade promotion authority will grant Obama authority to sign trade deals, including the TPP, without major interference from politicians.
As the House of Representatives has already passed the bill, it will take effect with Obama’s signature. It will be the first time for TPA to be granted to a president since 2007.
The National Pork Producers Council, an agricultural group that has been vocal about TPP issues, welcomed the passage of the TPA bill.
“We applaud Congress for approving TPA, which is imperative for finalizing free trade agreements that boost U.S. exports and create U.S. jobs,” Ron Prestage, president of the council, said.
Japan’s exceptional tariffs on pork and other farm produce have been a sticking point in the bilateral TPP talks with the U.S. The United States and Japan account for a combined 80 percent of the pact.
The 11 TPP negotiating partners of the United States have effectively been waiting for Congress to grant Obama fast-track authority so they can make bolder concessions without worrying that the U.S. legislature could reject or amend any of the agreed terms.
The 12 countries are expected to arrange for their chief negotiators and ministers to meet to bridge any remaining gaps on thorny issues, such as market access and intellectual property protection.
The U.S., Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam launched TPP negotiations in 2010. Malaysia, Mexico, Canada and Japan joined the dialogue later. The TPP would cover some 40 percent of the global economy.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said in a statement the legislation “will soon be signed into law.” The Republicans control both chambers of Congress.
He said the Republicans support American workers and that concluding the pact would help them “by knocking down unfair foreign trade barriers that discriminate against products stamped ‘Made in the USA.’ ”
The Senate also passed separately a package of measures Wednesday aimed at helping workers displaced by international trade, called Trade Adjustment Assistance, and sent the motion to the House, which is expected to take a vote on it on Thursday.
Congressional deliberations on trade have taken several twists. The Senate endorsed a bill containing TPA and TAA in May. The House endorsed its own version of the TPA bill Thursday last week, having separated it from the TAA package, and then sent the TPA bill back to the Senate for a revote.