The U.S. Senate advanced legislation that would give President Barack Obama enhanced authority to complete free-trade deals including a landmark agreement with Pacific nations.
The 60-37 vote Tuesday paves the way for final passage Wednesday. Because the U.S. House has already passed the bill, H.R. 2146, it would go to Obama for his signature if the Senate agrees. The trade legislation is one of the president’s top second-term goals.
“Now it’s time for the next step,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor before the vote. “Today is a very big vote; it’s an important moment for the country.”
The legislation, known as fast-track or trade promotion authority, would let Obama submit agreements to Congress for an expedited, up-or-down vote without amendments. His administration hopes to complete a 12-country trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership this year.
Thirteen Democrats voted with 47 Republicans to advance the measure. Five Republicans — including presidential candidates Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky — voted with 32 Democrats not to move the bill forward.
“America is back in the trade business,” McConnell said after the vote. “We intend to still be deeply involved in the Pacific.”
McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said that the process he set up will put several trade bills on the president’s desk before Congress adjourns for a week-long July 4 recess. He said Tuesday that the Senate will have a final vote on fast-track on Wednesday.
A national business coalition has lobbied hard for the fast-track bill, and the White House took up the fight last year in an unusual alliance with Republican congressional leaders. Many Democrats, who blame the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs, are opposing Obama.
“It’s clear that our trade policy creates winners and losers,” said Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, who has led opposition to the trade measure. “Trade agreements do not create winners everywhere. People in my state are losing jobs from these trade agreements.”
Cruz voted against the bill after previously supporting it. In an opinion column published by Breitbart.com, he said that while free trade is good for the U.S., the fast-track bill is part of a “corrupt” deal among Republicans, Democrats and the White House involving efforts to extend the Export-Import Bank.
The AFL-CIO, which opposes fast track, made a last-ditch bid to stop the measure with ads on the 100 most-trafficked websites in the Washington area, said Carolyn Bobb, a spokeswoman for the group. The ads say the measure would allow harm to the environment and wouldn’t help workers who lose their jobs because of trade agreements.
Business Roundtable President John Engler in a statement after the vote, “This bill will help ensure U.S. negotiators bring back the strongest possible trade agreements for American business and workers.”
The Senate previously passed the fast-track bill on May 23. That time, it was attached to the renewal of a decades-old worker-aid program called Trade Adjustment Assistance, which some Democrats insisted on as a condition for their vote.
When the bill went to the House, most Democrats rebelled and voted against the worker-aid plan in a bid to derail the fast-track measure. Republican leaders then attached the fast- track provisions to a popular public-safety retirement bill and sent it to the Senate anew for consideration.
The worker-assistance measure is being added to separate legislation, H.R. 1295, which promotes trade with poorer countries. McConnell also added a provision to benefit the steel industry in an effort to solidify bipartisan support.
That measure, supported by Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, would make it easier for companies to win unfair- trading cases at the Commerce Department against foreign competitors.
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