House panel approves 'fast track' trade authority

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The push to approve legislation of a massive 12-nation free-trade deal is on a fast track.

The House Ways and Means Committee late Thursday voted 25-13 to approve "fast track" legislation after 11 hours of debate Thursday. The vote came a day after the Senate Finance Committee approved similar legislation on a 20-6 vote without tougher currency manipulation rules sought by U.S. automakers.

Advocates had sought tougher language in the legislation that would have required the Obama administration to seek enforceable currency manipulation rules as they negotiate the 12-nation free-trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership that accounts for 40 percent of the world's economy. The fast-track bill allows the Obama administration to get an up or down vote from Congress on a final deal without amendments.

The House committee ruled an alternative proposed by Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, the top Democrat on the trade committee, out of order, citing committee jurisdiction issues.

"Unfortunately, the negotiations are not on the right track," Levin said. "On currency manipulation, which has cost America's middle class millions of jobs, we should ensure that the Trans-Pacific Partnership includes an obligation that our negotiating partners don't manipulate their currencies, as Japan did in the 1990s and China has in the last decade."

He said the fast track measure should do more on autos.

"And on autos, we cannot merely request that TPP 'expand competitive market opportunities for exports of goods,' without any guidance on how to truly open the historically closed Japanese automotive market."

The committee approvals come days before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe comes to Washington.

Still, it is not clear how many House Democrats will support fast track when it comes for a vote. Organized labor, led by the AFL-CIO, and many big manufacturers are strongly against the bill. President Barack Obama has been personally lobbying Democrats to support the measure, which has much stronger backing among Republicans.

The process known as "fast track" would enable the White House to assure its negotiating partners that any deal wouldn't be subject to amendments from lawmakers.

Levin called it a "major setback" that the Senate Finance Committee hadn't approved currency enforcement measures in its fast track bill.

Detroit's Big Three automakers lost a big battle Wednesday, when the Senate voted down an amendment that would have required the Obama administration to seek the currency manipulation standards in the deal.

The vote came after the Obama administration called the currency manipulation amendment a "poison pill" that could have derailed talks with Japan and other countries — and despite heavy lobbying by U.S. automakers, especially Ford Motor Co., which argues that without the measure, Japanese automakers may get a big boost from unfair currency intervention.

Still, the battle isn't over. Advocates of a tougher line on currency will make a push on the Senate floor — and another push when a final trade deal comes before Congress.

"It's clear there is broad, bipartisan agreement that currency manipulation must be addressed. Without enforcement against currency manipulators, the status quo prevails. The status quo isn't working," Ford spokeswoman Christin Baker said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said if the amendment had passed it would have derailed the bill.

"If this amendment passes, you can kiss (the deal) goodbye," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.