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Congress Signs Off On Trade Bills, Handing Obama A Huge Win

The U.S. House voted 236-138 Thursday to tie a bow on President Obama's package of trade-related legislation — giving him final approval on everything he wanted.

The Senate already had signed off on all of it, granting: 1) enhanced trade negotiation powers to the president, 2) aid for displaced workers and 3) trade incentives for sub-Saharan Africa.

Thursday's vote marked a stunning victory for Obama by clearing his path to completing the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal involving the United States, Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim nations.

Earlier this month, some rebellious Democrats had tried to derail White House plans for this possible massive expansion of trade. But those Democrats got outmaneuvered by the White House and GOP leaders who wanted to advance trade.

Here's what you need to know:

What exactly happened today?

  • The House reauthorized the Trade Adjustment Assistance program — that's a program to help workers who have lost jobs to foreign competition.
  • Obama insisted on getting this help for workers, saying it had to be part of any larger trade agenda.
  • Many Republicans oppose this program, saying it amounts to government waste, but they went along with it as part of a compromise.
  • And the House took another step as part of this grand compromise — it renewed the African Growth and Opportunity Act to help spur trade with Africa. That was another Obama request.
  • The GOP leadership allowed passage of these Obama-backed bills because they agreed with the president's larger goal: to complete this sprawling Pacific trade deal.
  • The Senate already has passed these bills, so the legislation is done now.

So the Africa bill and worker assistance were both part of a compromise. What's the rest of the deal?

  • The White House wanted Congress to renew Trade Promotion Authority. Presidents have had this authority for decades, but it had expired and Obama wanted it back.
  • This power authorizes a president to sit down with foreign counterparts and hammer out trade deals.
  • When they reach an agreement, the president can bring the deal to Congress and put it on a so-called fast track — that is, Congress can only vote yes or no, with no filibusters or amendments.
  • Presidents always want — and get — this power because realistically, no other country will negotiate unless they know that once they have shaken hands with the president, the deal is final.
  • On Wednesday, the Senate signed off on that. The House already had done so.

That means President Obama is now empowered to finish up with the Trans-Pacific deal, right?

  • U.S. negotiators can now complete the trade talks with the other 11 countries.
  • Probably before the year is over, the White House will ask Congress for a simple majority vote to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
  • And if it passes, that will be a huge addition to his economic legacy.
  • He has been saying for years that the United States needs to pivot to Asia.
  • By tying the U.S. economy more closely to Japan, Australia, Singapore and so on, he says Americans will be able to boost exports and counterbalance the growing strength of China.

But unions hate these developments. Why such strong opposition?

  • Labor groups say trade deals help big businesses but hurt workers by increasing competition.
  • They did everything to block Trade Promotion Authority. Now they vow to continue to fight the Trans-Pacific deal when it comes to Congress.
  • But the White House now seems in a much better position to win this ultimate goal.

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