Senate vote advances Obama’s key trade agenda

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks with reporters Tuesday after a policy luncheon in Washington.

President Barack Obama’s long-pursued trade agenda took a giant step toward becoming law 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.

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,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. 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.

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 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.

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 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.