Weird takes a new turn in D.C. as president’s own party rebels

Even on the rare occasion when our Washington honorables make a public display of trying to play nice and actually practice bipartisanship, things just seem to go off the rails, as was demonstrated in the recent contretemps in the Senate over whether or not to give the President Obama fast track authority on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Trade Promotion Authority allows the president to negotiate international agreements that Congress can only approve or disapprove, not amend or filibuster. The president has sought TPA as a tool for negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 Asian and Latin American countries.

Republicans, who’ve opposed virtually everything Obama has favored since he took office, did an about face, and most voted to give him fast track. But many in the president’s own party voted against it, denying the measure a majority. A key sticking point was Democrats’ insistence on packaging the measure with other trade provisions, including one that would crack down on countries that manipulate their currencies — as China is alleged to have done for years.

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And as has been the case with other U.S. trade deals in recent years, there were concerns about the expected loss of U.S. jobs; critics continue to contend that NAFTA and previous trade agreements have resulted in massive shifts of U.S. manufacturing jobs to low wage countries, and that for 20 years post-NAFTA the U.S. has suffered huge trade deficits.

Opponents contend that Obama’s free trade pact with South Korea has resulted in an increase in bilateral imports of more than $15 billion, while U.S. exports have risen by only $3 billion, with a loss of 100,000 jobs.

There were also complaints among senators voting against TPA that provisions of the trade deal are being kept secret and won’t be known until after it’s approved. “If this agreement is such a great deal for American workers, why can’t the American people read it?,” chided Vermont’s Independent senator, Bernie Sanders, himself a candidate for president in 2016.

Three days later, however, the Senate managed to come up with 65 votes in favor of starting debate on giving the president TPA, but only after they’d passed a couple of trade protection measures, including one that would crack down on currency manipulation — something the president opposes, and which critics say could set off a trade war with China. Also, they contend, it would likely cause several of the prospective Asian trade partners to pull out of the Trans-Pacific agreement.

Then, last Thursday, with the Memorial Day recess looming, the bill narrowly escaped death when the Senate voted to halt filibuster in an extend vote, and another close call Friday when a bipartisan currency enforcement amendment was threatened with a veto.

It’s all apt to face tough sledding in the House, where Speaker John Boehner characterized any congressional effort to deal with foreign currencies as “laughable.”

But Friday, he was terming the bill “a no-brainer” and saying he’d try to get it passed by the House. While many Republican House members may favor the Trans-Pacific trade deal, some are reluctant to give the president authority that would allow him to make trade agreements over which they would have only the option of an up or down vote.

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