Trade bill clears Senate hurdle, at brink of final passage

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Obama Wins Senate Vote on 'Fast-Track' Trade Proposal

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama's long-pursued trade agenda took a giant step toward becoming law on Tuesday, and opponents grudgingly conceded they now must fight on less-favorable terrain.

A key Senate vote greatly brightened Obama's hopes for a 12-nation Pacific-rim trade agreement, a keystone of his effort to expand U.S. influence in Asia. The trade pact would be a high point in a foreign policy that has otherwise been consumed by crisis management, and would give Obama a rare legislative achievement in the Republican-controlled Congress.

The Senate voted 60-37 to advance his bid for "fast track" negotiating authority. That was the minimum number of votes needed on the procedural question. But final passage, expected no later than Wednesday, needs only a simple majority, which would let Obama sign fast track into law.

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Trade bill clears Senate hurdle, at brink of final passage
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio walks in Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington toward the House Chamber, Friday, June 12, 2015. The House sidetracked a high-profile White House-backed trade bill, a humiliating defeat for President Barack Obama inflicted by Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and dozens of rank-and-file lawmakers from his own party. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama walks through a hallway after meeting with House Democrats at the US Capitol on June 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. The House blocked a trade bill on June 12 which would have given Obama authority to pursue a sweeping free trade agenda. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Demonstrators protest against the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement outside the Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important proceedural vote on the trade bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major Pacific trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Demonstrators protest against the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement outside the Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important proceedural vote on the trade bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major Pacific trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Demonstrators protest against the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement outside the Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important proceedural vote on the trade bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major Pacific trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Demonstrators protest against the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement outside the Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important proceedural vote on the trade bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major Pacific trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Md., arrives for a meeting with President Barack Obama and other House Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 12, 2015. The president made an 11th-hour appeal to dubious Democrats on Friday in a tense run-up to a House showdown on legislation to strengthen his hand in global trade talks. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. leave meeting with House Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 12, 2015. The president made an 11th-hour appeal to dubious Democrats on Friday in a tense run-up to a House showdown on legislation to strengthen his hand in global trade talks (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama walks in the Democratic dugout as he makes a visit to the Congressional baseball game at Nationals Park, on Thursday, June 11, 2015, in Washington (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
In this photo taken June 9, 2015, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., answers questions during an interview with The Associated Press in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington. First, give presidents the power to strike trade deals. Then overturn President Barack Obama’s health care law, overhaul the tax code and reform welfare. And someday? Figure out whether to run for president. Call it the New Ryan Plan, a map not just to big changes in the nation’s fiscal policy, but to Paul Ryan’s future. It points the ninth-term congressman and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee away from the presidential campaign trail and into the thicket of policy that he says will set the country on better financial footing. The path likely emerges at a familiar decision point _ whether to run for president _ somewhere down the road. Ryan, 45, says he might decide to take that step, someday. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 4, 2015. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. said Thursday that President Barack Obama can count on only a small number of Democrats to back his ambitious trade agenda, and Republicans must supply the rest. Boehner said Obama must procure more Democratic support, telling reporters he spoke with Obama on Wednesday, and "he's got some work to do, too." (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi leaves after a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 4, 2015. Pelosi said that President Barack Obama can count on only a small number of Democrats to back his ambitious trade agenda, and Republicans must supply the rest. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said Obama must procure more Democratic support, telling reporters he spoke with Obama on Wednesday, and "he's got some work to do, too." (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
FILE - In this May 5, 2015 file photo, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Ky. walks to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington. Senate leaders said Tuesday that Democrats have enough votes to block action on President Barack Obama's trade initiatives unless the parties can work out disagreements on how to package various bills. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a strong opponent of Obama’s trade agenda, said Democrats have more than enough votes to block action for now. McConnell agreed. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
UNITED STATES - MAY 12: Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., left, and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, arrive for a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to express support for passage of the Trade Promotion Authority legislation, May 12, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 12, 2015. Earnest discussed the much-anticipated Senate vote on trade, and other topics. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 12: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., leave the Senate Democrats' policy luncheon on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
In this May 8, 2015, photo, President Barack Obama speaks at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. A much-anticipated Senate vote on trade will pack some suspense Tuesday, but it won’t be the final word, no matter how it turns out. Supporters of President Barack Obama’s trade agenda need 60 votes in the 100-member Senate merely to start a full-blown debate on the legislation. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 12, 2015. Earnest discussed the much-anticipated Senate vote on trade, and other topics. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
UNITED STATES - MAY 12: Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., right, and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, conduct a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to express support for passage of the Trade Promotion Authority legislation, May 12, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 21, 2015 before the Senate Finance Committee hearing on fast track authority. Major labor unions and business groups clashed Tuesday over President Barack Obama's bid for "fast track" authority to advance trade deals being negotiated with numerous nations. Trumka told the Senate Finance Committee that the fast track legislation would rob Congress of a meaningful role in shaping trade deals. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, right, talks with U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 21, 2015, prior to their testifying before the Senate Finance Committee hearing on fast track authority. Major labor unions and business groups clashed Tuesday over President Barack Obama's bid for "fast track" authority to advance trade deals being negotiated with numerous nations. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah gives an opening remark on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 21, 2015, before the committee's hearing on fast track authority. Major labor unions and business groups clashed Tuesday over President Barack Obama's bid for "fast track" authority to advance trade deals being negotiated with numerous nations. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, right, walks into a hearing room on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 21, 2015, with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, center, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue before the committee's hearing on fast track authority. Major labor unions and business groups clashed Tuesday over President Barack Obama's bid for "fast track" authority to advance trade deals being negotiated with numerous nations. Trumka told the committee that the fast track legislation would rob Congress of a meaningful role in shaping trade deals. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama, left, walks with Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., as he makes a visit to the Congressional baseball game at Nationals Park, on Thursday, June 11, 2015, in Washington (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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The president also wants to continue a retraining program for workers displaced by international trade. House and Senate support appears adequate, but even if that measure stumbles, the long-coveted fast track bill will be on Obama's desk.

"This is a very important day for our country," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. In the strange-bedfellows politics of trade, he was among the Republican congressional leaders vital in pushing the agenda forward, with only modest help from Democrats.

The big majority of Democrats, especially in the House, oppose free-trade agreements, as do the labor unions that play important roles in Democratic primaries. They say free-trade agreements ship U.S. jobs overseas.

Democrats Supporting Trade Bill | InsideGov

Obama, major corporate groups, GOP leaders and others say U.S. products must reach more global markets. They say anti-trade forces have exaggerated the harm done by the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.

Previous presidents have enjoyed fast track authority. It lets them propose trade pacts that Congress can reject or ratify, but not change or filibuster.

Obama wants to complete negotiations for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Members include Japan, Mexico and Canada. He would ask Congress to ratify it, following weeks or months of public scrutiny that will give opponents another shot.

Several such organizations said they will regroup and fight on.

The liberal group MoveOn.org said fast track "puts the interests of massive, multinational corporations over those of American workers, consumers, and voters." When the Pacific-rim proposal becomes public, the group said, "MoveOn members and our allies nationwide will hold our elected officials accountable and urge them to vote down any deal that's bad for the American economy."

Some anti-free-trade groups, however, essentially conceded defeat.

"Fast track makes it virtually certain that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), and other secret trade deals will become law," said the "Internet-freedom" group Fight for the Future.

Tuesday's Senate vote was as painful for the AFL-CIO and other unions as it was welcomed by the White House. Many corporate, agricultural and manufacturing groups cheered.

The Senate vote "is an important step towards revitalizing our economy, creating more good American jobs, and reasserting our country's global economic leadership," said U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue.

The Senate was poised to give final passage to fast track on Wednesday - or possibly late Tuesday - and then address three other trade-related bills.

The most important would extend trade adjustment assistance, which provides aid and retraining to workers displaced by international trade. The House also would have to endorse the program for it to become law.

The retraining program is usually a union and liberal priority. But House Democrats this month voted against it in hopes of scuttling fast track, which was part of the same measure. Obama's trade allies rescued the agenda by decoupling the items and passing fast track, by itself, in the Senate on Tuesday.

Some House Democrats still talk of blocking the retraining program, because Obama has insisted on signing it along with fast track. Others, however, say they've lost their legislative leverage and ending the program for displaced workers would be counterproductive.

Presidential politics threw a brief scare into pro-trade senators early Tuesday. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, a presidential hopeful, flipped his vote from support in May to opposition, saying the issue had become "enmeshed in corporate backroom deal-making."

The only other senator to change positions was Ben Cardin, D-Md. He voted in favor of fast track in May, but voted to block it Tuesday.

Republicans Against Trade Bill | InsideGov

For all the bitter politics over trade, many economists say new trade agreements might affect the U.S. economy only modestly. Jobs lost to trade might be roughly offset by jobs created, they say.

Still, Obama and others say greater U.S. assertiveness on world trade will lessen China's influence in Asia and elsewhere. Obama says China could eventually join the Pacific-rim pact, but China would have to abide by its environmental, economic and workplace rules.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters, "our work on trade is not finished."

"With bipartisan support from Congress," he said, fast track "will help America write the rules of the road and ensure that our new global economy will be constructed to allow more hardworking Americans to compete and win."


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