Senate Passes Currency Measure Paving Way for Trade-Bill Action

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) answers reporters' questions during a brief news conference outside the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol July 23, 2013 in Washington, DC. McConnell did not take any quesitons about the announcement by Tea Party activist Ted Blevin that he will challenge McConnell in the 2014 GOP primary in Kentucky.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The U.S. Senate passed two measures clearing the way for action later in the day on President Barack Obama’s legislation to speed approval of trade agreements.

Democrats sought votes on the bills, on currency manipulation and imports from sub-Saharan Africa, as a condition of granting Obama fast-track authority. The Senate plans to vote Thursday afternoon on advancing the fast-track proposal and will consider amendments next week.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Thursday the agreement to separate the two measures from the broader trade bill was a sensible plan.

“I’d like to thank the president too,” McConnell said. “No, you’re not hearing things. President Obama has done his country a service by taking on his base and pushing back on some of the more ridiculous rhetoric we’ve heard.

On Tuesday, a rebellion by Democrats blocked Republicans from moving Obama’s legislation forward. Many Democrats remain stung by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which is blamed by labor unions for a decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs.

The trade bill, H.R. 1314, would give Obama and the next president, for six years, the authority to submit trade agreements to Congress for an up-or-down vote without amendments. Obama hopes to complete a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and submit it for fast-track approval by Congress.

The Senate voted 97-1 Thursday for a measure to create a trade preference program for sub-Saharan African imports, which the Obama administration said it supports. The vote was 78-20 for a proposal targeting currency manipulation by other countries. The administration said it favors parts of the measure but opposes the way it addresses currency manipulation.

Penalizing Imports

The currency measure, sought by Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, would give the Commerce Department new power to penalize imports from countries that manipulate exchange rates. Schumer has for a decade wanted stronger action against countries -- notably China -- that drive down the value of their currencies to make exports more competitive.

The Treasury Department opposes the Schumer provision, arguing that it would expose the U.S. to retaliation and could violate U.S. obligations under existing trade agreements. Treasury prefers to address currency issues in other talks, led by finance ministers.

Even Schumer has acknowledged the measure would draw a presidential veto. In the House, Representative Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has repeatedly opposed currency-related riders on trade legislation.

Customs Legislation

The currency language was added to U.S. Customs legislation that includes a number of measures to enforce existing U.S. trade laws, sought by companies including the steel industry, as well as child-labor laws.

While many Democrats plan to oppose granting Obama fast-track authority, former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told Bloomberg reporters and editors in a meeting Wednesday that such opposition isn’t strong enough to prevent it from passing this year.

Tuesday’s rebellion by Democrats was a rebuke for Obama, who in recent weeks has been in meetings, on the telephone and in personal appeals seeking every possible Democratic vote.

House Speaker John Boehner said that passing the trade measure ‘‘is going to require Democrats putting aside politics and doing what is best for the country.”

“More trade means more jobs for the American people,” Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters Thursday.

Currency ‘Manipulation’

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said at a news conference that among her members, “there is a belief that currency manipulation” has been a cause of job losses.

Without saying whether House Democrats would support the fast-track bill, Pelosi said that one “overriding concern” was that the measure would be in effect for six years, not just for approval of a trans-Pacific agreement.

“You’re asking for fast track; let’s see what you’re asking for it for,” she said.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called on Democrats to continue to insist on combining the currency measure into the fast-track trade bill.

“Anything less leaves America’s workers, domestic producers and communities behind,” Trumka said in a statement Wednesday.

The currency manipulation measure is H.R. 644, and the African trade-preferences bill is H.R. 1295.