Senate approves trade enforcement measure, clearing way for fast-track

The Senate took an initial step toward picking up President Obama’s trade agenda on Thursday by approving a controversial customs bill that includes language cracking down on currency manipulation by trading partners.

The legislation was easily approved in a 78-20 vote. Under rules adopted for the vote, 60 votes were needed for the measure to pass.

GOP presidential hopefuls Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzFour states sue to stop internet transition House approves stopgap funding, averting costly shutdown Overnight Tech: TV box plan faces crucial vote | Trump transition team to meet tech groups | Growing scrutiny of Yahoo security MORE (Texas) and Marco RubioMarco RubioOvernight Finance: Lawmakers float criminal charges for Wells Fargo chief | Scrutiny on Trump's Cuba dealings | Ryan warns of recession if no tax reform The Trail 2016: Just a little kick Opposition to Obama's radical disarmament agenda has proven effective MORE (Fla.) voted no, while Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulLawmaker seeks to investigate Obama's foreign tax compliance law Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears GOP senators hit FBI on early probe of NY bombing suspect MORE (Ky.) voted yes. So did Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamKerry: US 'on the verge' of suspending talks with Russia on Syria GOP leaders express reservations a day after 9/11 veto override McConnell opens door to changing 9/11 bill MORE (S.C.), who is considering a 2016 run.

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Democrats had demanded a vote on the bill in exchange for supporting a later vote that would allow the Senate to begin debate on fast-track trade legislation, a top legislative priority for Obama. That vote is scheduled for 2 p.m.

Supporters of the currency manipulation language frame the customs bill as a trade enforcement measure, and the vote gives some cover for Democrats who want to back fast-track.

It’s unlikely the customs bill will be picked up by the House. 

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Boehner3 ways the next president can succeed on immigration reform Republican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare MORE (R-Ohio) on Thursday called efforts by Congress to legislate foreign currencies "laughable." 

The Obama administration also doesn’t support the measure. It warned ahead of the vote on Thursday that the currency provisions “raise highly problematic questions” about if the legislation would violate current international trade agreements, though it stopped short of a veto threat.

Despite White House concerns, Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerHow the White House got rolled on the Saudi-9/11 bill Election-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Democrats press Wells Fargo CEO for more answers on scandal MORE (D-N.Y.)  said he's “hopeful” the bill will make it to Obama's desk. 

The fast-track legislation would allow Obama to send a trade pact he is negotiating with Asian and Latin American countries to Congress for an up-or-down vote. Congress would not be able to amend the legislation under fast-track.

Unions and other liberal groups have launched a heavy lobbying and public relations campaign to defeat it. Earlier in the week, Senate Democrats voted against moving to the fast-track bill, demanding that the customs legislation be added to the package.

After a wave of headlines highlighting the fight between Obama and Democrats, a deal was reached on Wednesday in which the customs bill was given a separate vote.

Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownOvernight Finance: Lawmakers float criminal charges for Wells Fargo chief | Scrutiny on Trump's Cuba dealings | Ryan warns of recession if no tax reform Anti-trade senators say chamber would be crazy to pass TPP Democrats press Wells Fargo CEO for more answers on scandal MORE (D-Ohio), one of fast-track’s fiercest opponents, argued that in adopting the customs bill the Senate was acting as an “empathetic voice” on trade.

“The simple message: We cannot have trade promotion without trade enforcement,” he said. “We shouldn't be passing agreements while doing nothing, which the Senate tried to do on Tuesday.”

The bill increases the likelihood that penalties could be imposed on trading partners who engage in currency manipulation, which can lower the value of products and make them more competitive as exports.

Republicans were under pressure to oppose the customs bill.

The Club for Growth, a conservative outside group, said ahead of the vote that it would include the customs vote as part of its congressional scorecard. 

“Our largest objection to this bill is the currency language that was added during the committee markup conducted earlier this year,” the group said. “This new language would designate currency manipulation as a prohibited export subsidy, and thus, allow the government to take remedial action against the foreign country in question.”

Senators also voted 97-1 to pass a non-controversial package package of trade preferences for sub-Saharan Africa. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) was the only no vote. 

This story was updated at 1:37 p.m.