WASHINGTON (AP) — In a rare bipartisan scene at the White House, President Barack Obama on Monday signed into law two hard-fought bills giving him greater authority to negotiate international trade deals and providing aid to workers whose jobs are displaced by such pacts.
The measures were politically linked to secure bipartisan support for the trade legislation, and they set the stage for the Obama administration to conclude negotiations on a 12-nation Pacific Rim economic pact.
“I thought I’d start off the week with something we should do more often, a truly bipartisan bill signing,” Obama said in a crowded East Room ceremony. Five Democratic and two Republican members of Congress watched as Obama affixed his name to the two bills.
The trade bill gives Congress the right to approve or reject trade agreements, but not change or delay them. Obama defied the wishes of most members of his Democratic Party and frayed relations with organized labor to push the legislation.
The worker assistance was part of a broader trade preferences bill that extends a measure easing trade between the U.S. and sub-Saharan Africa.
“I think it’s fair to say that getting these bills through Congress has not been easy,” Obama said. “They’ve been declared dead more than once. They have inspired long and passionate debates and that’s entirely appropriate for our democracy.”
But he said they will ultimately be good for American workers and for American business.
Obama worked in unusual partnership with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold a small minority of pro-trade Democrats and prevent too many Republican defections to ultimately win.
Trade critics say the legislation doesn’t go far enough to ensure strong enforcement of labor and environmental standards and does not hold countries accountable if they manipulate their currency. Union leaders say trade will cost American jobs.
Obama used the event to push for further bipartisan legislation, particularly for a massive infrastructure bill that would help build new highways, airports and shipping ports.
Tensions within the Democratic Party were visible throughout the debate on the legislation and prompted warnings from labor leaders that Democrats who supported the bill could be targeted for defeat.
As Obama signed the legislation, he declared, “This is so much fun we should do it again.”
But one of the lawmakers on stage with him, perhaps reflecting the bitter infighting, jokingly replied, “No thank you.”
The 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership includes countries from Chile and Mexico to Japan and Australia and would give the United States greater economic influence in Asia, where China also seeks to be a dominant force.
Trade experts anticipate that final agreement sometime in the early fall and action by Congress by the end of the year. Obama will still have a heavy task winning approval of such a deal, but the fast-track measures he signed Monday make it harder for lawmakers to block it.
“This bill is a big win for American jobs and leadership, and I hope the president will continue to work with us to get more bipartisan, House-passed jobs bills signed into law,” Boehner said in a statement following the bill signing.