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Obama’s trade agenda draws Republican support in House

Barack Obama

Washington:  Legislation to strengthen President Barack Obama’s hand for a new round of trade deals advanced 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 Republican-controlled Congress voted handed Obama a victory on trade. The Senate Finance Committee approved a nearly identical bill yesterday 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,” Republican Rep Paul Ryan, 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 Organising 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 US workers their jobs. “Currency manipulation has caused more job loss than anything else connected to trade,” said Rep Sander Levin, 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.

Besides 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.

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