US vote leaves Pacific trade talks in limbo

By Elaine Kurtenbach, AP

TOKYO–How slow can you go? The effort to get trade U.S. trade legislation through Congress, clearing the way for progress on an Asia-Pacific trade accord, is in limbo once again.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday shot down a proposal to give President Barack Obama authority to negotiate global trade deals for congressional approval or rejection, without amendments.

Among U.S. trading partners, the setback was viewed more with resignation than panic.

Supporters of the trade pact say it is needed to give the U.S. and other participants a chance to help fashion rules for trade in the 21st century. Critics object to confidentiality requirements preventing disclosure of details of the negotiations, viewing the overall agenda as being too aligned with the interests of big business.

House lawmakers approved trade negotiating power for the president, 219-211. But they rejected a proposal to renew federal aid for workers who lose their jobs due to imports, by a vote of 302-126.

Rules required that the House approve both parts of the legislation, previously approved by the Senate, so the ��No�� vote meant defeat for the overall package, a decision that could be overcome after further congressional maneuverings.

Trade officials in Japan and Australia reacted to the defeat of the Trade Promotion Authority, or so-called ��fast-track authority,�� by saying that without it, the effort to forge the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact was unlikely to succeed.

��Congress puts Obama’s TPP on ice,�� read a front-page headline in the Yomiuri newspaper.

��Voting results are very tricky,�� it and other local media quoted the TPP minister, Akira Amari, as saying.

Amari said it was unlikely that the 12 countries negotiating the trade pact would manage to hold ministerial-level meetings before the end of this month as originally planned.

Trade Promotion Authority legislation ran into a similar hurdle in the U.S. Senate, but eventually passed, so Friday’s vote could be just a temporary setback.

But it adds to the constant delays that could prevent Obama from getting a final trade pact agreement with the 11 other nations participating before the U.S.-side becomes too embroiled in campaigning for the 2016 elections.

Any change to the bill in the U.S. House would require Senate reconsideration of the legislation, slowing the process further.

��But, for the White House and business community, delay is better than defeat,�� said Richard Katz of the Oriental Economist Report.

��We are not predicting that TPA will pass the House. That vote is still too close to call. What we are saying is that it’s too early to start putting nails in the coffin,�� he said in a commentary.

Australia’s trade minister, Andrew Robb, said he was optimistic the countries involved in the trade talks can reach an agreement.

��There is another opportunity next week to get the ducks lined up,�� he said on Saturday. ��There is always a lot of cut and thrust in these things and politics being played.��

The negotiations, intended to eventually create a region-wide free-trade area, involve Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.