Senators Strike Trade Deal to Let Congress Slow Fast Track

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A top Senate Republican agreed to a Democratic request to let Congress slow action on certain trade pacts, boosting the prospects of a bill President Barack Obama supports to enact major trade deals.

Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Republican chairman of the Finance Committee that sets trade policy, and Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the panel, drafted legislation with a provision giving lawmakers more power over some deals, said Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican.

The bill, known as trade promotion authority, would let the White House send trade pacts to Congress for an up-or-down vote with no amendments allowed. Wyden obtained language in the measure that lets Congress jettison the fast-track process if 60 senators concluded the president ignored congressionally mandated negotiating objectives, Grassley said.

“If we are going to get any trade promotion authority, we’re going to have to move with this,” Grassley said in an interview Wednesday. “I don’t think what you’d call the circuit-breaker would be a problem.”

Hatch, in a prior interview, declined to confirm any agreement with Wyden. He said he will hold a hearing Thursday to consider the legislation and possibly schedule a committee meeting on the matter next week.

Adjustment Assistance

“We’re close and I intend to get there,” Hatch told reporters before senators met for their weekly policy lunch on Tuesday. Wyden said, “the only way I can accurately characterize it is that we’re not there yet.”

The final stumbling block to introducing legislation on fast track is working out a separate bill to reauthorize Trade Adjustment Assistance, Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said in an interview. That bill would provide aid to workers whose jobs were lost due to trade agreements.

Portman and other senators are seeking to move the bill alongside trade promotion authority, something Hatch said would be needed for Democratic support, even though Republicans generally oppose the adjustment assistance.

“I’m not going to support it, but it’s going to have to pass,” Hatch said.

The deal by Hatch and Wyden probably will ease the bill’s journey in the Senate, Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said in an interview. The compromise “will fly” in the Finance Committee, he said.

A tougher battle is likely in the House, where most Democrats and some Republicans have vowed to defeat the bill.

‘Lean In’

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California on Monday called on Obama to step up efforts to win over Democrats, whose core constituencies, including labor unions and environmental groups, oppose the legislation.

“I think if the president can lean in, get a few more Democrats, this could get done pretty soon,” McCarthy said.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, has been part of the talks with Hatch and Wyden, so as to speed passage in the House. “He’s the major link in getting this done,” Hatch said.

Congressional aides say the bills will probably be introduced soon in both chambers. The House probably will take up the measure first, during the last week of April. It is being timed to coincide with the April 29 scheduled address by Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a joint meeting of Congress.

Other than provisions for stopping the fast-track process, the bill is similar to measures passed since the early 1970s to give the president power to swiftly complete trade agreements.

The bill is designed to smooth the way for Congress to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free-trade deal that the Obama administration hopes to complete this year. The U.S. and the European Union are working on a similar pact.

Portman, a U.S. Trade Representative under President George W. Bush, said the circuit-breaker provision wouldn’t undermine future trade negotiations because there’s a strong political commitment to free trade in the Senate.

“We’ve never had a trade bill fail,” Portman said.

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