Top lawmakers strike deal to fast-track trade pacts


Also Thursday:

• President Barack Obama signed legislation permanently changing how Medicare pays doctors. The bill overhauls a 1997 law that aimed to slow Medicare’s growth by limiting reimbursements to doctors. Instead, doctors threatened to leave the Medicare program, and that forced Congress repeatedly to block those reductions.

• Key lawmakers said they were making progress on resolving a dispute that has long held up Senate approval of legislation to crack down on human trafficking — as well as confirmation of Loretta Lynch as attorney general. The legislation says that restitution paid by convicted sex traffickers would go into a fund to aid victims. Democrats object to a Republican-drafted provision saying that none of the money may be used for abortions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has held up Lynch’s confirmation vote pending resolution of the issue.

• The House voted to repeal the federal tax on estates. Republicans refer to it as the “death tax” and say it prevents small business owners and family farmers from passing businesses on to their heirs. Democrats say repealing the tax is a giveaway to the rich, since the only families that pay it have many millions in assets. The bill now goes to the Senate, where Democrats appear to have enough votes to block it.

From news services

Top congressional lawmakers struck a long-sought, bipartisan agreement Thursday for the broadest trade policy pact in years, allowing President Barack Obama to negotiate trade accords for Congress’ review and move forward with talks on a sweeping partnership with Pacific nations.

Obama quickly said he will sign the bill if Congress passes it.

“It’s no secret that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to their promise,” Obama said in a statement. “And that’s why I will only sign my name to an agreement that helps ordinary Americans get ahead.”

Chief among the challenges of passing the bill are divisions within the president’s own party. Liberal and pro-business Democrats are bitterly split over the deal’s potential for creating or subtracting American jobs. Under the legislation, Congress gets an up-or-down vote on any such deals, but in exchange it cannot make changes — a concern for labor, environmental and other interest groups.

House Speaker John Boehner applauded the deal but said much of the burden of its success rests with Obama.

“He must secure the support from his own party that’s needed to ensure strong, bipartisan passage,” Boehner said.

For Obama, the “fast track” legislation comes at an opportune time. He’s negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which proposes a trade agreement involving the United States, Japan, Vietnam, Canada, Mexico and seven other Pacific rim nations.

Labor unions and others say the pact would hurt U.S. job growth and encourage other countries to abuse workers and the environment. The Obama administration rejects those claims, and says U.S. goods and services must have greater access to foreign buyers.

One Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, said the agreement marked only a start and could be derailed by amendments that might be added when lawmakers consider the bill in committees.

Brown and other Democrats who are aligned with organized labor are often highly suspicious of trade legislation. They argue such measures wind up destroying jobs in the U.S. and creating jobs in nations that lack the environmental and worker safety protections that exist in the United States.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he expects the committee to consider the legislation next week.

The past several presidents have had so-called trade promotion authority, under which Congress may vote yes or no on proposed international deals, but not amend them. Authority lapsed in 2007, and Obama is seeking its reinstatement.