House votes to give Obama fast track trade authority

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The U.S. House narrowly voted to give President Barack Obama fast-track trade authority, reviving his agenda less than a week after handing the White House a major setback.

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 is a big turnaround from Friday, 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.

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. Now the fast-track bill will return to the Senate for another vote expected early next week.

“With this hurdle crossed, it’s time for the Senate to act once again,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chair of the Finance Committee.

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.”

Last week, House Democrats overwhelmingly bucked the personal plea of President Barack 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.

“Tom Linebarger, chairman and CEO of engine maker Cummins Inc., said, “We applaud the House for passing bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority legislation, which is critical to negotiating the best possible trade agreements for the United States and opening up new markets for American-made products and services.”

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.

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.