WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers narrowly approved legislation key to securing a hallmark Pacific trade deal on Thursday, partly reversing a defeat less than a week before, in a boost to President Barack Obama’s goal of strengthening U.S. economic ties with Asia.
The House of Representatives voted 218 to 208 to give the White House authority to close trade deals such as the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which encompasses 40 percent of the global economy and is close to completion.
But the bill, a stripped-down version of legislation that failed at a vote last week, must now go back to the Senate for approval, and passage is not assured.
The House has been wrestling for weeks with fast-track authority, which lets lawmakers set negotiating objectives for trade deals, such as the TPP, but restricts them to a yes-or-no vote on the finished agreement.
Democrats last week dramatically rejected a personal appeal from Obama to back legislation central to his hallmark Pacific Rim trade deal by voting down a companion measure to renew an expiring program to help workers hurt by trade.
The trade package consists of three basic components.
That measure was cut from the bill approved on Thursday, but the change from the original legislation ensures a return to the Senate, delaying final passage further.
In debate before the vote, many Democrats lined up on the House floor to voice their anger with Obama’s trade initiative.
“This thing is modeled after NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which cost us 5 million jobs,” said veteran Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter.
Republicans, weary of the long struggle to pass fast-track, urged the House to vote and move on. “Enacting trade promotion authority is critical for our economy and for our national security, and so we’re going to get it done here today,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Republican, said.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden told Reuters pro-trade Democrats were determined to pass both fast-track and the worker aid program and were working on a plan to achieve that goal.
One option is to tack the program on to a bill renewing trade benefits for African countries, which the Senate has to consider again anyway, although members of the Congressional Black Caucus have warned against using the bill as a “bargaining chip.”
Many Democrats, who have strong links to trade unions, fear trade deals such as the TPP will cost U.S. jobs as employers chase lower costs in signatory countries.
The House vote is a good sign for the TPP, which would harmonize standards on issues like intellectual property and labor protections and lower trade barriers among the dozen emerging and developed countries.
Approval of the TPP would open new markets for major U.S. exporters such as Boeing, Ford, IBM, Caterpillar, Merck and Cisco, policy analysts said.
Negotiators are under pressure to finish the pact, which is already more than five years in the making, to allow the TPP to clear Congress before 2016 U.S. presidential election campaigns dominate the agenda.
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton has yet to take a stand on the deal, but the former secretary of state has said Obama should take on board legitimate concerns expressed by fellow Democrats.
Some TPP partner countries, including Japan and Canada, want fast track in place before making final offers on the trade deal, which economists estimate would boost the global economy by almost $300 billion a year.
Trade deals are controversial in the United States, which has a share of exports to gross domestic product roughly half that of China, partly because of the country’s past experience with NAFTA.
That pact freed up trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico and, more than two decades later, is blamed by many for U.S. factory closures and job losses and has soured sentiment toward the TPP.