On Thursday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR), along with House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), introduced “The Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015.” Co-sponsors of this trade promotion authority (TPA) measure claim that it will establish rules for international trade agreements that “boost the American economy and better jobs for American workers.”
At issue is giving President Barack Obama streamlined authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country free-trade deal that would essentially dwarf the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Many letter carriers can well recall how NAFTA devastated the American labor force by sending millions of jobs overseas.
Chief negotiators for this new TPA measure claim to have included in it provisions that will protect American workers and renew trade preference (“Buy American”) programs. However some lawmakers are skeptical of the Obama administration’s trade agenda, and this skepticism could translate into opposition of any trade legislation that limits Congress’ ability to offer amendments but instead favors straight up-or-down votes.
House Republicans want a vote on the bill before they break for the Memorial Day recess; however, support for the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan TPA bill is unclear.
The measure needs 218 votes to pass in the House of Representatives. That means between 10 and 50 Democrats will be needed to support the bill—depending on how many of the 247 House Republicans might break ranks and oppose it. On that front, there could be anywhere between 24 and 50 Republican who oppose this TPA, alongside an estimated 10 Democrats.
“The Hatch-Wyden-Ryan TPA gives up congressional leverage at the exact wrong time,” House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-MI) said. “Instead of pressing [the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative] to get a better agreement or signaling to our negotiating partners that Congress will only accept a strong agreement, the TPA puts Congress in the back seat and greases the skids for an up-or-down vote after the fact.”
“We don’t know how many Tea Party Republicans will not want to give the president this authority,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), who is also actively opposing the bill and represents a heavy manufacturing district. “You see on some of the negotiations with Iran [LINK], they want a heavy amount of oversight; they want to watch every move that he makes.
“If that same group applies that same standard to this trade agreement,” Ryan said, “there may be some backlash with us in the House not having the ability to amend it.
“There’s a lot of unknowns out there for a Democrat to get out in front and say, ‘I’m definitely voting for this.’ ”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-NY), a staunch opponent of TPA, said there is a larger concern at stake. “The single biggest economic issue facing American families is that jobs do not pay enough to live on,” she said. “Fast-tracking the TPP would make it easier for corporations to offshore Americans jobs and force our workers to compete with those making less than 60 cents an hour.”
In the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Hatch wants a much earlier vote—by the end April—but he will need six supportive Democrats to get to a 60-vote, filibuster-breaking threshold.
“What I can tell you, which is good news, is a lot of members are feeling the heat,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who also opposes TPA. “Whether we can beat it in the Senate or not, I don’t know. I think we have a better shot frankly in the House where, to the best of my knowledge, the overwhelming majority of Democrats are against it.”
At a Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday to discuss the legislation, several senators raised concerns. “Not fair and not adequate on such an important issue,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, who protested plans to rush to a vote.
In anticipation of introduction of the bill, NALC joined several member of Congress and the leaders of other organization at a rally Wednesday on Capitol Hill to voice concerns over trade agreements that fail to address labor’s concerns.
“Our message to all 535 members of Congress is the same,” NALC President Fredric Rolando said at the rally: “We strongly oppose Fast Track authority, and we expect every one of you to vote against it.
“We’ve all seen this movie before,” he said. “Big business and Wall Street banks push secret, anti-democratic deals to protect the investor rights of multi-national companies, under the banner of ‘free trade.’ And they promise rising wages and millions of jobs.
“But what we get,” Rolando said, “is outsourcing, wage stagnation and ballooning trade deficits.”
“We’re here today to fight,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who has declared her opposition to Fast Track and TPA. “We are here to fight. Are you ready to fight?”
Also joining Warren to speak were Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Al Franken (D-MN) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-NY), Keith Ellison (D-MN), Alan Grayson (D-FL), Dan Kildee (D-MI), Rick Nolan (D-MN), Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Brad Sherman (D-CA).