House Republicans pushed White House-backed trade legislation toward committee approval on Thursday despite strong objections by Democrats demanding stronger labor and environmental standards as well as a ban on currency manipulation by Asian nations.
With the GOP in the majority, there was no doubt the measure would clear the Ways and Means Committee, just as a nearly-identical measure passed the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday night. Both houses are expected to vote on the measure in the next few weeks as the administration works to complete a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement with 11 other nations.
The legislation would let President Barack Obama reach trade agreements that Congress could approve or reject, but not change. Previous chief executives have enjoyed such power for decades, but the last so-called "fast track" bill expired in 2007, before the current administration took office.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the committee, said the legislation was needed to open overseas markets to American goods and to encourage Japan and other countries involved in the Trans-Pacific talks to be more forthcoming in negotiations. " They're waiting for this to put their best offers on the table," he said.
But Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., the senior Democrat on the panel, said the negotiation objectives in the legislation "are too vague and often out of touch with the current talks" when it comes to labor standards, currency manipulation and more.
The legislation requires the administration to certify that any agreement meets certain objectives for labor standards and other issues, but Democrats said that wasn't enough. They proposed an alternative that would create an advisory committee to make that decision - a significant check on the president's authority.
Republicans said they would prevent a vote on the alternative because portions were outside the committee's jurisdiction, a procedural objection that angered Democrats.
Obama's opponents lost a round Wednesday. The Senate Finance Committee narrowly defeated a "currency manipulation" measure that Obama aides said would unravel the Pacific Rim deal. Votes for and against the provision were about evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, highlighting the unusual - and possibly tenuous - political alignments on trade.
The committee later voted 20-6 to pass the fast-track bill. The only committee Republican voting no was Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina.
Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said fast-track approval promises "high standard" trade deals in the future.
Few issues divide Democrats more than trade. Obama, like former President Bill Clinton, supports free trade, but many Democratic lawmakers do not.
Clinton's and Obama's stands - and liberal groups' opposition - pose a dilemma for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady now seeking the presidency herself. Campaigning this week in New Hampshire, she declined to say whether she supports the Pacific Rim proposal.
Rivals in both parties mocked her. But Obama seems likely to remain the focus of much ire, especially from fellow Democrats.
Obama says his Democratic opponents have their facts wrong. "I would not be doing this trade deal if I did not think it was good for the middle class," he said this week. He said Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is among those "wrong" on the issue.
Warren responded with a blog: "The government doesn't want you to read this massive new trade agreement. It's top secret."
Obama and his trade allies reject such claims. They say fast-track and other trade proposals have been carefully negotiated and will undergo public scrutiny for months before final votes take place.
Their biggest scare Wednesday came when Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio urged the Finance Committee to direct U.S. trade officials to take tougher stands against nations that allegedly keep their currency artificially low. The practice can boost exports by making local products more affordable to foreigners. Economists disagree on whether China and other nations engage in the practice.
Obama administration officials said attempts to crack down on currency manipulation can backfire and ignite trade wars. They said Portman's proposal could derail the Pacific-rim negotiations. The Finance Committee rejected Portman's amendment, 15-11.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.