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With House approval of worker aid bill, trade package goes to Obama

Fast-track authority is a huge win for Obama, though his ultimate goal — Trans-Pacific Partnership — is far from a done deal.

President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans overcame their ideological differences and delivered a powerful effort to get this trade package through Congress.
REUTERS/Gary Cameron

WASHINGTON — It took fierce lobbying from the White House and congressional leadership, parliamentary wrangling, and weeks of high drama at the Capitol, but today, the “fast-track” saga has finally come to an end.

Yesterday, the Senate voted 60 to 38 to approve Trade Promotion Authority, or “fast-track” authority. Today, the House of Representatives voted 286 to 138 to pass a trade preferences bill that includes the reauthorization of Trade Adjustment Assistance, a longstanding program designed to aid American workers harmed by free trade agreements.

Both head to President Barack Obama’s desk, paving the way for the next trade battle: the negotiation of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, a top goal of the Obama administration.

Obama and congressional Republicans overcame their ideological differences and delivered a powerful effort to get this trade package through Congress. Over the objections of some in their caucus, Republicans led the charge to give Obama so-called “fast-track” authority, or the power to send trade deals for congressional approval without that body being able to amend or filibuster them. Fast-track was staunchly opposed by most Democrats, and in the House, they nearly killed the package by voting down TAA, which is popular in their party, for the sake of stopping TPA.

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After that setback, the pro-trade camp correctly bet that, by separating the two, they would have the votes to send TPA to Obama, leaving Democrats no choice but to support TAA, too. Democrats were skeptical that Republicans’ would move to pass TAA — a program the GOP views as unnecessary welfare — once they already had what they wanted. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, gave assurances they would.

Ultimately, Minnesota’s Democrats in Congress voted against TPA and in favor of TAA. Minnesota Republicans voted in favor of both — with Reps. Tom Emmer, John Kline and Erik Paulsen bucking most of their party in voting for worker aid.

Fast-track alone is a huge win for Obama, but his ultimate goal — TPP — is far from a done deal. Labor unions, environmental groups and other progressive organizations, which spent tremendous time and resources to stop the trade package, have vowed to fight that deal as tenaciously. Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison — who has been a vocal critic of the White House and leadership throughout this process — immediately pivoted to TPP in a statement after the vote. “The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a bad deal for working Americans,” he said. “I will continue to oppose any trade deal that puts corporate interests above creating jobs and increasing wages for working Americans.”

As Democrats move on to the next battle, the president and congressional Republicans seem content to savor the moment, at least for now. Paulsen, a leading proponent of the trade deal, said, “The progress made this week on trade is critical to expanding opportunities for U.S. businesses to sell more American products around the globe and create higher-paying jobs here at home. We’re also one step closer to achieving an ambitious TPP agreement to open new markets in Asia.”