Obama's 'fast track' trade Bill set to get Senate nod

Republicans backing his bid after Democrats rebuffed it earlier

THE Obama administration's push for a landmark Pacific Rim trade deal appears to be back on track, despite a devastating rebuff by Democratic congressmen earlier this month.

With the support of the Republicans, President Barack Obama's bid for authority to "fast track" trade deals through Congress cleared a major hurdle in the Senate on Tuesday.

Yesterday, the Senate was expected to give its final approval to the Bill, which could help speed up the process for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Such a deal would create a free trade zone stretching from Japan to Chile and is a key part of Mr Obama's Asia strategy to counter China's growing influence, both economic and diplomatic.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday's procedural vote to end the debate on the Bill meant "America is back in the trade business" and "will continue to be deeply involved in the Pacific".

But much more still needs to be done even after "fast track" authority is passed, said observers.

Singapore Ambassador to the United States Ashok Mirpuri noted that bilateral free trade agreements are challenging endeavours and "getting 12 nations in a row just multiplies the difficulty" of ultimately passing a trade deal.

"Do not underestimate how much more needs to be done," he said on Tuesday at the think-tank Atlantic Council.

The Japanese Embassy's senior official on economic affairs Kanji Yamanouchi, who spoke at the same event, said the completion of the trade negotiations would still depend on "strong political will, the complexity of negotiations, and the creativity and flexibility of chief negotiators".

He noted that after the final terms of the deal are set down, individual nations would still need to go through their process of ratification. However, he added that the negotiations would be "accelerated and very much motivated" once the "fast track", also known as the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), is approved.

The Obama administration has faced several setbacks on the road to the TPA - a law that prevents Congress from amending free trade deals, allowing it to give only a "yes" or "no" vote.

The TPA has been one of the rare instances where Mr Obama has found common ground with Republican lawmakers.

By contrast, he has had to work hard to convince his own Democratic Party members to support the trade Bill by reassuring them that it would ultimately mean access to markets in Asia and Europe and more jobs for American workers.

Earlier this month, House Democrats thwarted attempts to push the TPA Bill through, by voting for it but voting down a companion Bill that provides aid to workers whose jobs are displaced by free trade. However, Republicans foiled this by deciding to separate the two Bills.

Besides casting the final vote on TPA yesterday, the Senate is expected to vote to end the debate on the new Bill to help US workers. This Bill will then be put to a Senate vote today.

simlinoi@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2015, with the headline 'Obama's 'fast track' trade Bill set to get Senate nod'. Print Edition | Subscribe