An unexpected move by US lawmakers has led to renewed hope that legislation to grant President Barack Obama fast-track authority on trade – seen as key to finalising an agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – may be approved earlier than anticipated.

By agreeing to vote on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) as a standalone bill, de-linking it from Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) and adding it to an unrelated pension bill, it was passed yesterday (18 June) by a 218-208 vote. It will now go to the Senate in its standalone form, and is likely to be considered next week.

The move is in sharp contrast to the situation earlier this week, when the US House of Representatives extended by six weeks until 30 July the deadline to reach a decision on an accompanying piece of legislation on Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). This measure provides retraining for American workers who lose their jobs due to free trade pacts, but was rejected in a vote last Friday (12 June).

While Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), a "fast-tracking" procedure on trade agreements, was narrowly approved in last Friday’s vote, the two bills – TPA and TAA – were both conjoined as part of the Trade Act of 2015 package. This meant that because the Senate had already passed them both, they also had to be approved together by the House before going to the president to be signed into law.

The potential six-week extension had left both bills in limbo, as well as raising concerns that US trade initiatives would make little progress until President Obama’s successor takes office in 2017.

While the outcome of TPA in the Senate remains unclear, US apparel and footwear retailers and importers are calling on lawmakers to complete work on this and a separate the trade preferences bill as soon as possible.

"We urge the Senate to follow suit, act quickly, and pass the House-approved TPA bill," says Juanita Duggan, president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA).

The House last week passed The Trade Preferences Extension Act of 2015, which includes extension of the Haiti HELP/HOPE programme, a ten-year renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and renewal and update of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) programme. This has headed back to the Senate because it includes amendments to near-identical legislation that was passed by the Senate in May.

The package includes "a number of measures that will provide immediate relief to apparel and footwear companies," Duggan notes.

International trade law firm Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg suggests TAA is "generally expected" to be added to The Trade Preferences Extension Act, "which ostensibly would be easily approved by the Senate and then the House."

It adds: "Supporters are hoping that this combined bill, along with the TPA legislation, could be approved by the House and Senate before lawmakers break for the Fourth of July recess."

The fast track authority would allow the White House to negotiate trade deals that Congress could approve or reject without making any changes. It is seen as key to concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) being negotiated between the US and 11 countries including Vietnam, as well as moving forward on the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union (EU).

"These trade agreements are important to the US apparel and footwear industry and its growth because they can help open new markets to US clothing and shoe companies and our four million US workers. In this global economy, we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines while other countries negotiate trade agreements that exclude us," Duggan explains.