The Republican-led House of Representatives voted to give President Obama authority to negotiate trade agreements, passing the so-called fast-track bill with the assistance of just 28 House Democrats on Thursday.
The Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill, which was decoupled from a labor program, will now go back to the Senate for approval. If Obama signs the bill, then the final Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal can go to Congress for a straight up-and-down vote, and Congress will not be allowed to make line-item changes to the deal. However, Obama has indicated that without the companion bill establishing the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, he will not move ahead with the trade agreement.
Environmental advocates have come out strongly against the TPP, which they say will allow corporations to sue countries that enact environmental policies that damage investments. This tactic has been used under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), including an instance where an American oil and gas company sued the Canadian province of Quebec for enacting anti-fracking laws.
In addition, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) added an amendment to the fast-track authorization bill last week that would “ensure that trade agreements do not require changes to U.S. law or obligate the United States with respect to global warming or climate change.” In effect, this means the U.S. Trade Representative would be prohibited from addressing climate change during negotiations.
Environmentalists criticized Thursday’s vote, which came on the same day Pope Francis officially released a papal encyclical on climate change and the environment.
“On the very day when one of the world’s leading moral authorities issues a historic clarion call for action to combat climate change and protect our planet, you’d think at least some of our leaders would listen,” 350.org Executive Director May Boeve said in an emailed statement to ThinkProgress. “Instead, Congress has once again bowed to moneyed special interests, and voted to fast-track a trade deal that takes us a giant step backwards in the fight against climate change.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week directed her colleagues to vote against the Democrat-supported TAA, which would have offered assistance to Americans whose jobs were impacted by the trade agreement.
“You cannot separate commerce and environment,” Pelosi said on the House floor. “If TAA slows down the fast track, than I am prepared to vote against it.”
The party-line break was a risky move. While Obama has indicated that he won’t sign the fast-track authorization without the labor component, moving forward with the TPP, a free trade agreement with several Asian and South American countries, is widely seen as an administration priority and a key part of Obama’s presidential legacy. The Senate has already passed the language in the TPA, when it was still tied to the TAA. The Senate is expected to pass the House version, as well, which will leave the decision to the president.