Senate advances fast-track trade bill

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The U.S. Senate voted to advance President Barack Obama fast-track trade authority, following approval by the House last week.

The Senate voted to end debate on fast-track authority 60-37, setting up a final vote as early as tomorrow. On Wednesday, the Senate is to separately consider a vote on job training assistance for workers who lose their jobs because of free trade.

“We have demonstrated we can work together on a bipartisan basis to achieve something that is extremely import for America,” said Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

Both Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, voted against the measure.

Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who heads the Business Roundtable, praised the Senate vote. He said it “will ensure U.S. negotiators bring back the strongest possible trade agreements for American businesses and workers.”

But Teamsters President James Hoffa criticized the vote, saying “too many senators decided to trust big business and the House instead of standing up for American workers.”

He said there is no guarantee the House will take up the job training bill known as Trade Adjustment Assistance. “Workers have been tossed aside by some lawmakers who are more interested in pleasing their corporate cronies than doing what’s best for their constituents,” Hoffa said.

The House on Thursday voted 218-208 in favor of the measure that allows for an up or down vote with no amendments on a massive free trade deal. All Michigan Republicans except Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, voted in favor. All Michigan Democrats voted against it.

The vote was a big turnaround from the previous week, when the House overwhelming denied — with a 302-129 vote — an extension of job training assistance that the president had hoped would ease fears that American jobs could be lost under an Asia Pacific free trade deal. Without reauthorization, the job training program will end in September.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on a conference call Tuesday manufacturing job losses over the last two decades have been the result of broader economic trends. “Are we going to lock in the status quo and do nothing?” Earnest said, saying that it hasn’t been a good strategy.

He said the agreement could help “level the playing field” for U.S. firms. But U.S. automakers and others have said without currency manipulation rules, other countries could undercut U.S. firms.

Some studies have argued that manufacturing will be a “net loser” in the agreement and could shed $36 billion in trade by 2025, while sectors like services and others will be winners.

Earnest urged Democrats to support Trade Adjustment Assistance job training when it comes to the floor this week, warning that they won’t have another chance to extend the program that is set to expire in September without action from Congress.

Since 2009, 48,707 Michigan workers have qualified for job training under the program because they lost jobs due at least in part to global trade. That’s the second highest in the nation — and only behind California.

Michigan had nearly 900,000 factory jobs in 2000. The state has suffered through a series of rough years. In 2009, Michigan lost a quarter of all its factory jobs, falling to about 470,000, but today it has rebounded to 590,000.

House Democrats overwhelmingly bucked the personal plea of Obama to extend job training assistance. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said the vote was the only way to “slow down” the effort to give the Obama administration fast-track authority on a massive Pacific Rim free trade deal under negotiation.

Republican leaders on Thursday moved forward on fast-track trade authority by attaching it to another piece of unrelated legislation without considering job training assistance for people who lose jobs because of free trade deals.

Obama had met with House Democrats who had supported fast track and was able to convince them to vote again for the measure, even without a guarantee that job training assistance will be passed separately.

Michigan has been the second-biggest recipient of job training assistance under the Trade Adjustment Assistance program since 2009, behind only California.

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said to vote for fast track now “is to surrender congressional leverage to get it right in shaping (the Trans-Pacific Partnership), the most significant trade negotiation in decades. Congress will have settled for a bill with so-called congressional negotiating objectives so vague they are essentially meaningless .... You can’t be confident that Japan will open its market at long last to our cars or agricultural products.”

The White House expects the job training bill will be passed separately.

For more than seven years, the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada and eight other nations have been negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would create a free trade zone. Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam are also part of the negotiations. The pact would cover one-third of global trade and nearly 40 percent of the world’s economy.

Under fast track, a final deal must be public for 60 days before Congress will vote on it. That means Congress wouldn’t vote until September at the earliest.

A free trade deal could be the single biggest change in global auto production in the last half century. Proponents say it could open more markets to U.S. autos, but critics say it would make it easier to shift production to lower wage countries.