Legislation to provide President Obama with Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) encountered a setback on Tuesday, when the U.S. Senate voted down a procedural measure that would have permitted the Senate to bypass lengthy further debate on the bill.  The bill, the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 (“TPA Bill”), would provide so-called “fast-track” authority, allowing the President to submit trade deals (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)) to Congress for simple approval or disapproval, without the ability to make amendments to the deal. The Senate voted 52-45 yesterday afternoon on the procedural measure, short of the 60 votes required to invoke cloture, which would have limited further consideration of the bill to 30 additional hours of debate.

In substance, the 2015 bill is nearly identical to the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014, which was referred to committees in the Senate and the House with no further action taken.  The primary changes in the 2015 legislation relate to transparency and to the ability of Congress to revoke TPA for certain trade agreements upon resolving that the President did not adequately “notify or consult” with Congress with regard to enumerated negotiating objectives or other requirements of the bill.  With regard to transparency, a major concern for many lawmakers throughout the TPP negotiations, the 2015 bill:

  • Clarifies that Congressional staff with proper clearance will be given access to negotiating documents and other relevant information.
  • Establishes a “Chief Transparency Office” in the Office of the United States Trade Representative to coordinate transparency policy.
  • Requires USTR to create and maintain publicly available websites regarding trade negotiations at least 30 days before initiating negotiations with another country.
  • Requires the President to publish the text of a trade agreement on the USTR website at least 60 days prior to entering into the agreement.

Even with the additional language regarding transparency and the ability of the House and Senate to strip TPA protections for failure to notify or consult, the President faces a challenging political dynamic, with strong opposition from Republicans and Democrats in both chambers.

The key issue in yesterday’s vote was the refusal of TPA supporters to simultaneously consider a package of three other trade bills, including a customs enforcement bill that would address evasion of antidumping and countervailing duties, strengthen trade remedy provisions, and define currency manipulation as a countervailable subsidy under U.S. trade laws.

These provisions were included in the legislation that passed the Senate Finance Committee on a bipartisan basis.  Senate Democrats asked that all four bills move together, but Republicans did not agree with this proposal.

Following the failed motion, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved to reconsider at a later date.  With this delay, it could be June before there is another opportunity to advance the legislation.

A side-by-side comparison of the 2014 and 2015 TPA bills is available here.