WASHINGTON (AP) — Legislation to strengthen President Barack Obama's hand for a new round of trade deals advanced Thursday in the House courtesy of Republicans and over the protests of Democrats, a political role reversal that portends a bruising struggle over passage later this spring.
The vote was 25-13 in the House Ways and Means Committee as pro-business Republicans outpolled labor-aligned Democrats. It was the second straight day the GOP-controlled Congress voted handed Obama a victory on trade. The Senate Finance Committee approved a nearly identical bill Thursday night that would allow lawmakers to vote yes or no without making changes in trade deals, like the one now taking shape among Pacific Rim trading partners.
"They're waiting for this to put their best offers on the table," Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the House committee chairman, said of negotiating partners that include Japan, Singapore, Chile and Peru.
The president put in a plug for the legislation while speaking dismissively of its critics. "When people say this trade deal is bad for working families, they don't know what they're talking about," Obama told activists and donors with Organizing for Action, a group with roots in his presidential campaigns.
Democrats said the legislation didn't go far enough to assure labor standards and environmental protections strong enough to avoid placing American companies at a disadvantage, and said failure to prohibit currency manipulation abroad would cost U.S. workers their jobs. "Currency manipulation has caused more job loss than anything else connected to trade," said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the panel.
But the Democrats' attempt to substitute their own legislation — weakening Obama's powers — was ruled out of order by Republicans on grounds that it exceeded the committee's jurisdiction. As a result, no vote was taken on it.
It would have set up a congressional committee with authority to decide if any trade deal had met negotiating objectives, taking the power away from Obama. Unlike the White House-backed measure, it would only have applied to the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, and not to other possible deals over the next six years.
In addition to trade talks involving countries bordering the Pacific, the administration is involved in negotiations toward a TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union and a Trade in Services Agreement with dozens of countries.
Trade legislation is a perennial political irritant for Democrats, never more than now, given the post-recession political fault lines that have developed on the issue of income disparity.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, the party's leader in the House, declined to say if she supports the legislation. At a news conference, she said: "At the end of the day, you weigh the equities. Is this better than the status quo? How much better? Or is it a wasted opportunity? And right now, I'm disappointed."
She suggested that if the White House and Republicans fail to produce a majority for the measure, it would increase Democratic leverage to seek changes.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination this week in New Hampshire, similarly declined to state a position.
Some Democrats have been far less reluctant, though. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a persistent critic of large corporations, has engaged in something of a long-range debate with Obama over the subject in recent days.
The House legislation is nearly identical to a bill that cleared the Senate Finance Committee on a bipartisan 20-6 vote. Seven of that panel's 13 Democrats supported the bill. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina was the only Republican to oppose it.
In the House committee, all Republicans joined with Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Ron Kind of Wisconsin in supporting the bill.