(Yomiuri: June 20, 2015 – p. 3)
By Kunihiko Yasue in Washington
The U.S. Congress’s deliberation on the bill granting trade promotion authority (TPA) to President Barack Obama is at a critical stage. The Senate will start procedures for voting on the bill as soon as June 23. A small number of Democratic senators in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) hold the key to the outcome. It is still hard to tell if the vote will put an end to the battle over the TPA bill since this was submitted about two months ago.
The TPA bill is supposed to give strong trade negotiation powers to Democratic President Obama. Yet, only 28 out of 188 Democratic members of the House of Representatives voted for the bill, while 190 out of 246 Republicans voted in favor of it, passing the bill with a razor-thin margin on June 18.
Obama is pushing for the TPP to boost U.S. economic growth with free trade and to strengthen ties with Japan and the Asian countries in economic rule-making, in order to face off against China economically.
The Republican Party, which is supported by the business sector, is in favor of the TPP. The Democratic Party, however, is opposed to the TPP because it is supported by labor unions that are concerned about a loss of jobs due to industrial hollowing-out. This reversal of support structure on the TPP issue has complicated deliberations in Congress. Many Democratic lawmakers voted against the bill because their supporters’ opinions are more important to them than their leader.
The focus has now moved to the Senate, which has 100 members – 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 independents. A motion to vote on the bill is required before voting can take place, and Senate rules dictate that the support of at least 60 members is necessary to submit a motion. The number of Republicans is insufficient, so the cooperation of the Democrats is necessary. After that, a simple majority alone will be enough to pass the bill. Submitting this motion is critical to whether the bill can be passed.
The Republican Party is proposing to pass the Democratic Party’s pet legislation, the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) bill, after the TPA bill is passed to enlist the Democrats’ cooperation. The TAA program is expiring by the end of September, so failure to pass the bill will come as a serious blow to the Democratic Party.
However, the Democrats fear that if the TPA bill is passed first, the Republicans may not cooperate with the passage of the TAA bill.
According to the U.S. media, of the 14 Democratic senators who previously voted for the TPA bill [in a package with the TAA bill], two have indicated their opposition to the standalone TPA bill. Democratic minority leader in the Lower House Nancy Pelosi stated on June 18, “I don’t think the TPA or the TAA bill will be passed.” There were only 62 senators who voted in favor of the TPA bill in the previous ballot, barely making the 60 needed [to submit the motion to vote]. Tension is high in the Senate.
TPA will grant Obama the power to present the TPP agreement reached by the 12 participating nations to Congress for a vote without revisions. Since the TPP participants will no longer need to worry about the U.S. Congress modifying what they have agreed on, this will facilitate negotiations. If the TPA bill is passed, they are planning to convene a TPP ministerial meeting in July to engage in final negotiations for a basic agreement.
On the other hand, if the Senate is unable to even vote on the bill due to a lack of cooperation from the Democrats, prospects for passing the TPA bill will be dim. While Obama and the Republican leadership may still attempt to work for a breakthrough, they have already made repeated efforts. There is a possibility that the TPP talks, which are only a step away from reaching an agreement, may face a prolonged stalemate. (Abridged)