Senate Unveils New Bipartisan Fast-Track Bill

The leaders of the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday introduced long-awaited legislation that will enable the White House to submit trade agreements for swift approval but also give lawmakers a larger role in the negotiating process, setting the stage for a high-stakes debate over the nation’s trade policy.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, speaks Thursday at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on trade policy. (Credit Senate Finance)

Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ranking Member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., came forward with the bill to renew the administration’s Trade Promotion Authority after weeks of closely watched deliberations over language that would allow Congress to strip an accord of its fast-track protection if certain conditions are not met and subsequent discussions over a federal program to provide relief for workers displaced by trade.

“This is a smart, bipartisan compromise that will help move America forward,” Hatch said in a statement. “The renewal of TPA will help American workers and job creators unlock new opportunities for growth and promote better, higher-paying jobs here at home. If we want to maintain our nation’s economic leadership and promote American values around the world, we must reach beyond our borders, and this bill is a strong first step.” (Credit AP)

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also joined the effort with the lower chamber’s version of the legislation, which he said will strengthen the country’s economic standing both at home and abroad.

“The bill makes sure that Congress will set the priorities in our trade agreements, and it includes unprecedented accountability, transparency and enforceability measures,” Ryan said.(Credit AP).

Work to strike a bipartisan deal on the bill was apparently underway up to and including Thursday morning, when Hatch said at a Finance Committee hearing that he was aiming to hold a markup of the legislation on April 23 once the details were ironed out.

Formally known as the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015, the bill reinstates TPA, under which Congress lays out objectives and standards for the administration to meet in its trade talks. In exchange, the agreements are assured an amendment-free vote in each chamber of Congress once they are finalized.

TPA has been expired since 2007 and Congress has not passed a TPA bill since 2002. In the intervening years, the advancement of technology and the global economy have created new, pressing areas for trade policymakers to address.

Among those are rules regarding cross-border data flows, currency manipulation and competition disciplines for state-owned enterprises, all of which are tackled in the TPA bill unveiled Thursday.

The bill is seen as crucial not only for shaping U.S. trade negotiating priorities for the next several years, but also in the near term for easing passage of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, which negotiators are aiming to wrap up as soon as possible.

While the introduction of the bill and the bipartisan handshake deal between Hatch and Wyden is significant, the bill’s most fractious days still lie ahead, as trade skeptics in both parties have criticized the fast-track process as an affront to the principles of good governance.

The new legislation looks to tackle those concerns head-on by increasing the administration’s consultations with both Congress and the public, creating a new “transparency officer” in the U.S. trade representative’s office and establishing House and Senate advisory groups to oversee ongoing negotiations.

Under the new bill, the administration would also be required to make finalized trade deals available to the public for 60 days before being inked by the president and up to four months before a congressional vote. If the deal does not pass muster with the congressional objectives, a 60-vote majority in the Senate would strip the deal of fast-track protection and allow amendments.