Congress victory boosts Obama's Pacific trade pact

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U.S. lawmakers approved legislation key to securing a hallmark Pacific trade deal by a comfortable margin on Wednesday, advancing President Barack Obama's efforts to strengthen U.S. economic ties with Asia.

After a six-week congressional battle including two brushes with failure, some fancy legislative footwork and myriad backroom deals to keep the legislation alive, the Senate voted 60 to 38 to grant Obama the power to negotiate trade deals and send them on a fast track through Congress. The bill next goes to Obama for his signature.

Final passage could push the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a central part of Obama's foreign policy pivot to Asia, over the finish line and also boost hopes that an ambitious trade deal with the European Union could soon be completed.

The TPP, potentially a legacy-defining achievement for Obama, would be the biggest free trade agreement in a generation and rank with China's ascension to the world trade stage and the North American Free Trade Agreement liberalizing trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico.

But TPP ministers still have tricky issues to resolve, ranging from monopoly periods for next-generation medicines to the treatment of state-owned enterprises.

Some member countries, including Japan and Canada, want to have fast-track in place before making final offers on the trade deal, which would cover 40 percent of the worldeconomy and raise annual global economic output by nearly $300 billion.

Negotiators say a deal on the TPP, which would open new markets for U.S. exporters such as Caterpillar Inc (CAT.N) and Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O), could be wrapped up within weeks once countries are sure U.S. lawmakers will not pick the deal apart afterward, which fast-track prevents.

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Congress victory boosts Obama's Pacific trade pact
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) (C) talks with reporters following the weekly Democratic Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (L) talks to reporters with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) following the weekly Democratic Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) talks with reporters following the weekly Democratic Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) (R) talks to reporters following the weekly Republican Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) (C) talks to reporters following the weekly Democratic Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is pursued by reporters following the weekly Democratic Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (C) talks to reporters with Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) (L) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) after the weekly Republican Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 09: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) answers questions as members of the Republican leadership speak about the Defense Authorization Bill following caucus luncheons at the U.S. Capitol June 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, ,D-Texas, left, and Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., join other House Democrats who are standing in opposition to the President Barack Obama's trade deal speak to reporters during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., accompanied by fellow House Democrats, listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2016, to discuss opposition to the President Barack Obama's trade deal. Despite Obama's direct appeal, House Democrats voted overwhelmingly on Friday to reject a jobs retraining program because it was legislatively linked to fast track, which they want to kill. Both parties were asking Tuesday whether they could persuade enough colleagues to switch their votes and reverse Friday's outcome, but few were optimistic. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., accompanied by fellow House Democrats, gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2016, to discuss opposition to the President Barack Obama's trade deal. Despite Obama's direct appeal, House Democrats voted overwhelmingly on Friday to reject a jobs retraining program because it was legislatively linked to fast track, which they want to kill. Both parties were asking Tuesday whether they could persuade enough colleagues to switch their votes and reverse Friday's outcome, but few were optimistic. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: Members of the House depart for the weekend after a series of critical votes at the US Capitol June 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. House Democrats voted down legislation that would grant aid to workers displaced by trade, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the fast-track legislation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: Members of the House depart for the weekend after a series of critical votes at the US Capitol June 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. House Democrats voted down legislation that would grant aid to workers displaced by trade, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the fast-track legislation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: Members of the House depart for the weekend after a series of critical votes at the US Capitol June 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. House Democrats voted down legislation that would grant aid to workers displaced by trade, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the fast-track legislation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: Members of the House depart for the weekend after a series of critical votes at the US Capitol June 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. House Democrats voted down legislation that would grant aid to workers displaced by trade, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the fast-track legislation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama walks with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right and House Minority Assistant Leader James Clyburn of S.C., as he visits Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 12, 2015, for a meeting with House Democrats. 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/Carolyn Kaster)
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)
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-NJ., 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)
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. walks toward the House Chamber floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, 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)
From left, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Rep. David E. Price, D-NC., and Rep. Danny Davis, R-Ill., arrive 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)
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., left, and Rep. Sanford D. Bishop, Jr., D-Ga., arrive 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)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (L) walks through the halls of Congress before a series of critical votes at the US Capitol June 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. House Democrats voted down legislation that would grant aid to workers displaced by trade, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the fast-track legislation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) walks through the halls of Congress before a series of critical votes at the US Capitol June 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. House Democrats voted down legislation that would grant aid to workers displaced by trade, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the fast-track legislation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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Senators showed slightly less support than in an initial vote a month ago for fast-track, which would let lawmakers set negotiating goals for trade deals but restrict them to yes-or-no votes on final agreements.

Fast-track authority lasts for up to six years and would extend to any trade deals negotiated by Obama's successor, who would take office in January 2017.

The vote came as Congress was trying to finish up the four parts of the trade legislation package and send them to Obama: fast-track negotiating authority, aid for workers who lose their jobs as a result of trade, an Africa trade preferences bill and a customs enforcement measure.

Fast-track was forced back to the Senate floor after a revolt by Democrats in the House of Representatives resulted in it being split from a companion measure extending a program to help workers hurt by trade.

That bill is expected to pass the Senate shortly and will then return to the House. Many Democrats who opposed the aid program last week now plan to support it, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

The top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Sander Levin, said he expects the "vast majority" of Democrats to vote "yes." That would allow both measures to go to Obama for approval this week, before lawmakers go on a week-long break.

The bruising congressional battle has pitted Obama against many in his own party, including Pelosi, and prompted blood-letting among Republicans after party leaders lashed out at conservatives who refused to back the trade agenda.

Opinion polls show a majority of Americans support trade in general, but congressional approval has been a slog because labor unions and activists have campaigned against fast-track, warning of job losses and vowing to retaliate against Democrats who break ranks to support trade.

The front runner for the party's presidential nomination in 2016, Hillary Clinton, said Democratic critics had legitimate concerns but has so far reserved judgment on the TPP.

(Reporting by Krista Hughes)

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