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US owes allies a clear path forward on Pacific trade talks

THE FIGHT in Washington over the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — which promises to be one of the largest congressional battles of President Obama’s second term — has been on a slow burn for well over a year. But a deal struck late last week would give Obama “fast-track” authority to finish negotiating the agreement. Regardless of their views on the trade deal itself, lawmakers should vote for fast-track authority. Such a move would send a vital message to the trade deal partners that the United States negotiates in good faith, while also allowing Congress to reject the deal if lawmakers don’t think it does enough to boost the US economy.

In 2008, the United States joined negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the White House sees as a central component of a long-term strategic pivot to Asia. Now including 12 Pacific Rim nations such as Japan, Australia, and Peru, and accounting for nearly 40 percent of global GDP, the partnership is intended to establish common regulations on tariffs, intellectual property, dispute resolution, the environment, labor, human rights, and a range of other issues. The Office of the US Trade Representative frames the partnership as a way to set the rules for 21st-century trade while providing a counterbalance to China’s proposed alternative, the Free Trade Area of Asia and the Pacific.

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The deal has also led to some strange bedfellows: Obama and mainstream Republicans see it as an important step for the American economy, while Tea Party conservatives and progressive Democrats tend to oppose it, if for different reasons. Tea Partiers see it as another example of presidential overreach, while many Democrats — along with the AFL-CIO and other unions — are skeptical that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will actually benefit workers.

Enter into the mix fast-track authority. The deal struck by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, and Republican Representative Paul Ryan last Thursday would allow Congress to vote on the deal, but would deny lawmakers the ability to amend the final draft. In return, Congress would give US trade negotiators a broad list of priorities to negotiate for. However, if 60 senators feel that the deal does not meet their standards, they can shut off fast-track authority and open the deal to amendments. Lawmakers plan to introduce formal drafts of this legislation in both houses this week.

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That’s a fair deal, and one that legislators on both sides of the issue should feel comfortable supporting. Besides, it also represents a responsible interjection into foreign policy — something Congress has struggled with in recent memory. Many US allies and negotiating partners worry that without fast-track, any deal they strike with the Obama administration will die by a thousand cuts in Congress. Given how divisive the issue has become, that concern is not unfounded. Japan has expressed the same fear, and sees fast-track as a vital part of the negotiating process. Getting the bill sorted out before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Washington later this month would be a sign of respect for one of our most important allies.

It is hard to say whether the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be one worth signing — a draft of the deal hasn’t been released yet, and too many details about what it will include are still sketchy. But a vote for fast-track isn’t an endorsement of the agreement as a whole, and lawmakers who back this provision can still vote against the partnership itself. Meanwhile, a vote for fast-track would give the negotiating partners peace of mind and show them that America’s word can be trusted, while giving our negotiators the leverage they need to strike the best deal possible.

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