New twist offers hope for Obama to fast-track TPP

US House passes new version of law without tying it to aid package

UNITED States President Barack Obama's fading hopes of completing an ambitious free trade deal with Asia were rekindled in Congress, as the increasingly convoluted legislative saga on trade took yet another twist.

On Thursday, for the second time in a week, lawmakers in the House of Representatives voted to pass the controversial Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), a law granting the President fast- track authority to negotiate trade deals.

But this time, they voted for a version of the Bill that had no ties to the workers' aid programme that was used to torpedo it last week. It passed by almost the same margin as it did a week earlier - 218 to 208 - with the same 28 Democrats voting for it.

The move puts the ball back in the Senate's court - the Senate must pass the House version of the TPA if it is to become law.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was confident that he would be able to get it through the Chamber.

"Assuming everyone has a little faith and votes the same way they just did a few weeks ago, we'll be able to get all of these Bills to the President soon."

On June 12, House Democrats successfully blocked progress by voting down the aid package - meant to help US workers displaced by free trade - paired with fast-track authority.

That left congressional leaders with a headache: How to reconcile the trade package approved by the Senate that tied fast track to workers' aid and a House version that has only fast track?

Both Chambers must pass the same version of the law before it can be signed by the President.

On Thursday - after a week of lobbying and legislative manoeuvring - they appear to have decided that it was better to gamble on the Senate than try to change the minds of more than 70 lawmakers in the House.

All attention will now be focused on the 14 pro-trade Democrats who supported the Senate version of the law last month. So far, it is unclear how many are willing to support the standalone measure despite assurances from congressional leaders that the workers' assistance package will be passed separately.

One of the 14, Senator Ron Wyden, told reporters that the group is looking for clearer assurance. "What the pro-trade Democrats are telling me is that much of what is being speculated on doesn't give them the assurance they need that both are actually going to happen."

The Senate is expected to vote on the Bill next week to try to get it passed before the July 4 recess.

And while there are few certainties given the many shocks so far, Washington pundits said they believe the President will soon have the authority he needs to conclude the 12-nation mega free trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Mr Ernie Bower, senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said he is optimistic there are "sufficient numbers of Democrats in the Senate and House who understand that TPA and TPP are fundamentally important to US national security and our economy".

He said the embarrassment they caused to the President last week should appease some.

"Democrats felt hung out to dry by the White House because they believed the President was moving too fast without making the case and giving them cover. They've made their point and now have to focus on US national interests. The maths, destroyed by the political messaging to the President, is now back in order and TPA will pass as a result."

Mr Alex Sullivan, associate fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, agreed.

"Recent history has made betting against bipartisan comity in Congress a good business, but I'm hopeful in this case that lawmakers will do the right thing for the US economy and US international standing," he said.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2015, with the headline 'New twist offers hope for Obama to fast-track TPP'. Print Edition | Subscribe