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Pacific Trade Deal Inches Forward

Lawmakers cross first hurdle in passing legislation that would give the eventual trade deal and up-or-down vote.

<> on February 11, 2015 in Oakland, California.
<> on February 11, 2015 in Oakland, California.
OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 11: A shipping container is moved with a crane before being loaded onto a ship docked at the Port of Oakland on February 11, 2015 in Oakland, California. A work slowdown at West Coast ports continues amidst a long contract negotiations between Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Pacific trade pact at the center of President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia got a boost Thursday. Key Senate leaders reached a deal to start the process of passing legislation to “fast track” the trade agreement through Congress once it’s finished.

Progress on the bill comes at a key time for trade negotiators, who are aiming to finalize a deal this summer so it can go before Congress before the end of the year. The passage of “trade promotion authority,” as the legislation is known, would assure the other 11 countries involved in negotiations that the Obama administration can bring a final agreement before Congress and get an up-or-down vote.

The White House cheered the move as good for "our economy, our businesses, and most importantly for our workers."

The Pacific trade pact at the center of President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia got a boost Thursday. Key Senate leaders reached a deal to start the process of passing legislation to “fast track” the trade agreement through Congress once it’s finished.

Progress on the bill comes at a key time for trade negotiators, who are aiming to finalize a deal this summer so it can go before Congress before the end of the year. The passage of “trade promotion authority,” as the legislation is known, would assure the other 11 countries involved in negotiations that the Obama administration can bring a final agreement before Congress and get an up-or-down vote.

The White House cheered the move as good for “our economy, our businesses, and most importantly for our workers.”

“At a moment when 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we must make sure that we, and not countries like China, are writing the rules for the global economy,” President Obama said in a statement.

While passage of the bill is far from assured, the agreement between Sen. Orrin Hatch (R- Utah) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), first reported by the New York Times, clears the way for a committee vote and then a full Senate vote. The bill would still have to pass the House, where it’s unclear that it has enough support from Democrats.

Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, called the bill “a major step backwards.”

“On all of the major issues in the negotiations, the negotiating objectives are obsolete or woefully inadequate,” Levin said in a statement. “We can’t expect to get the best deal if we are not asking for the right things.”

The introduction of fast-track legislation signals the start of a tough and perhaps protracted congressional fight. While the trade pact — which if successful would be the largest in over two decades — is supported by many in the business community, opposition from unions, environmental groups, and liberal lawmakers has also been strong. Trade is often a hot-button issue that many Americans associate with globalization and job losses in the United States. A Pew Research Center poll published last September found Americans to be among the most skeptical of international trade deals.

“At a time when workers all over the country are standing up for higher wages, Congress is considering legislation that will speed through corporate-driven trade deals,” the AFL-CIO said in a statement on the union’s website, urging lawmakers to reject the fast-track bill.

The trade agreement, along with another European trade pact, are both part of the Obama administration’s ambitious agenda to lower barriers for U.S. companies abroad and increase exports.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), in particular, is seen as a key piece of the Obama administration’s rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said earlier this month that the trade pact is worth as much to U.S. prospects in the region as a new aircraft carrier. Analysts have recently called for Washington to promote ambitious trade deals with partners and allies in Asia, while excluding China, to strengthen America’s ability to push back against Beijing’s growing financial and military might.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Twitter: @jtrindle

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