Senate opens debate on fast-track bill 

Source: Daniel Bush, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, May 15, 2015

The Senate voted today to move forward with its “fast-track” trade legislation, paving the way for final passage in the upper chamber as soon as next week.

The vote sets up a debate next week on a trade promotion authority (TPA) bill the Obama administration is seeking to finalize for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 Asian countries and a separate trade pact in Europe. The TPA bill would give Congress an up-or-down vote, without any amendments, on trade deals over the next six years.

Pro-trade lawmakers and the White House, which wants to sign the TPP deal this year, say the trade deals under negotiation in Asia and Europe would boost the U.S. economy while protecting workers and the environment.

“The bill will ensure that the United States will continue to maintain the highest level of health, safety, consumer, environmental, labor and financial protections,” the White House wrote in a memo released after today’s vote.

But critics argue that the agreements would increase fossil fuel production, weaken environmental standards and expose U.S. consumers to lower food safety standards.

“By voting away their authority to set trade negotiating objectives, the majority of our senators chose corporate polluters over the American people,” Benjamin Schreiber, the energy program director of Friends of the Earth, said in a statement. “A vote for fast track is a vote for climate disaster and an attack on our clean air and water.”

Democrats blocked a vote earlier this week to open debate on the trade bill but reversed their position after leaders from both parties agreed to first consider two other trade-related measures.

Final trade passage in the Senate could come next week before lawmakers break for the Memorial Day recess, shifting the focus back to the House where many Democrats remain opposed to granting the president fast-track authority.

“The votes in the House are not there now,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, in a brief interview after the Senate vote. “We’ll see what happens.