The US House of Representatives passed a bill on Thursday to give President Barack Obama so-called “fast-track” authority to negotiate a 12-nation trade agreement.
Titled the Trade Promotion Authority Act (TPA), the bill was approved by a razor thin 218-208 vote and now goes to the Senate, where it needs a support by a supermajority for final approval.
With fast-track authority, Obama will have the power to negotiate a 12-nation Pacific RIm trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) without the risk of congressional amendments after signing, as the TPA restricts the Congress’ to a yes-or-no vote on the agreement.
The approval came a week after House Democrats blocked the bill with a political maneuver where they voted against another piece of legislation dubbed the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which they historically support as it aims to help American workers negatively affected by free trade agreements.
The TAA and TPA were tied to one another by the Senate earlier to encourage Democrats to vote for fast-track authorities, which meant that they had to pass the House together before going to president's desk, and failure to approve the TAA also meant blocking the TPA.
After last weeks’ failure, House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama agreed to pass the TPA as a stand alone bill, which led to today’s vote.
Fast-track authorities are crucial for Obama as negotiating countries led by Japan require it to pass before finalising the TPP, which is an important part of Obama’s foreign policy agenda as it aims to balance against rising influence of China.
However, the bill’s fate in the Senate is uncertain as it faces strong opposition from progressive democrats led by Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who claims it would hurt American workers, and libertarian Republicans such as Rand Paul of Kentucky who says it gives too much power to the president.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he plans to bring the bill to Senate floor next week and expects it to pass if everybody votes “the same way they just did a few weeks ago” when they approved the combined version of the legislation.
If finalised, the TPP will be the largest trade agreement in the history bringing together 12 countries - United States, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Peru, Chile, and Brunei - making up 40 percent of the World economy.