BUSINESS

With Congress set to finish Obama's trade bills, eyes turn to proposed pacts in Asia, beyond

06/25/2015 12:24 EDT | Updated 06/24/2016 05:59 EDT
WASHINGTON - Congress is wrapping up President Barack Obama's trade agenda, one day after handing him the big prize of "fast track" negotiating authority.

Lawmakers appeared ready on Thursday to approve a jobs retraining program for workers displaced by international trade. Usually a Democratic priority, it briefly became hostage to Democrats' failed efforts to block fast track.

Also on tap are measures to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act and to enact various customs provisions.

Passage of the bills will let Obama and his trade opponents shift their focus to proposed trade agreements under negotiation for years. The first involves the United States, Japan, Canada and nine other Pacific-rim nations.

The fast-track law allows Congress to ratify or reject such agreements, but not change or filibuster them.

Passage of the trade bills mark a huge win for the president, and one paradoxically spearheaded by Republicans. While clearly a setback for liberal Democrats, some say they will focus on details of the Pacific pact and other multination trade agreements the administration is expected to propose soon.

The resurrection of Obama's once-imperiled trade package is a stinging defeat for the AFL-CIO and other unions and environmental groups that fiercely opposed it. They say free-trade agreements kill U.S. jobs and help countries with poor environmental and workplace standards. Some have vowed to punish the relatively small number of congressional Democrats who opposed them.

But Obama — much like the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton — portrays expanded trade as crucial in a global, high-tech economy. Most Republicans agree, but most congressional Democrats, especially in the House, do not.

Trade has opened the most striking breach between a Democratic president and the lawmakers who overwhelmingly backed him on health care and other hard-fought issues.

House Democrats dealt Obama a humiliating rebuke on June 12, when they derailed his trade package only hours after he travelled to the Capitol to personally ask for their help. Republican leaders, with White House support, restructured the legislative package and passed its key elements with big GOP margins, plus modest Democratic support.