China’s Shadow Hovers over Senate Trade Debate

The Senate Finance Committee’s vote late Wednesday to approve “fast track” trade legislation revealed two things: Some Democrats strongly support the measure, and concerns about China’s currency practices will dog the bill as it moves through Congress.

“I think this is well on its way to passing,” Senate Finance Committee Orrin Hatch told reporters after the 20-6 bipartisan vote for the bill, which would empower the White House to finish a controversial Asia-Pacific trade deal. Seven Democrats joined with 13 Republicans to send the bill to the Senate floor.

The panel made few changes to the trade promotion authority package agreed upon last week by Hatch, Ron Wyden, the panel’s ranking Democrat, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). One amendment offered by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) that was accepted would elevate addressing concerns about a country’s human rights to a “principal negotiating objective” of the United States in trade agreements.

Cardin joined Wyden in backing the bill along with fellow Democrats Maria Cantwell of Washington, Bill Nelson of Florida, Tom Carper of Delaware, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Mark Warner of Virginia. However, Cardin reserved judgment on supporting the bill on the Senate floor.

The House Ways and Means Committee will vote on the trade promotion authority bill on Thursday, as lawmakers race to show progress on the legislation before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Washington next week. Japan is a key partner in talks on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, which when completed would include 12 countries representing nearly 40 percent of world economic output.

The full House and Senate are unlikely to act on the measure until May, giving supporters and opponents of bill more time to pressure undecided lawmakers to vote their way.

The bill would allow the White House to submit the Asia-Pacific pact and other agreements to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote without amendments. It has set off a fierce national debate that has aligned Obama with Republicans against many members of his own party.