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Senate approves fast-track, sending trade bill to White House
The Senate voted Wednesday to approve fast-track authority, securing a big second-term legislative win for President Obama after a months-long struggle.
The 60-38 Senate vote capped weeks of fighting over the trade bill, which pitted Obama against most of his party - including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Passage of the bill is also a big victory for GOP leaders in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The Republican leaders worked closely with an administration they have more frequently opposed to nudge the trade bill over the goal line.
Labor unions and liberal Democrats had fought hard against the authority and are likely to now turn their attention toward stopping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal Obama is negotiating with 11 other Pacific Rim nations.
Fast-track, or trade promotion authority, will allow the White House to send trade deals to Congress for up-or-down votes. The Senate will not be able to filibuster them, and lawmakers will not have the power to amend them.
The expedited process, which lasts until 2018 and can be extended until 2021, greatly increases Obama's chances of concluding negotiations on the TPP, which is a top goal of the president's.
Fast-track stumbled twice before its final approval, and the struggles to move it through the House and Senate likely made the victory on Wednesday even sweeter.
"We had plenty of bumps along the road. Frankly, a few big potholes too," McConnell said before the final vote. "But we worked across the aisle to get through all of them. That's an example of a new Congress that's back to work for the American people."
The Senate on Wednesday also passed a trailer bill that includes trade preferences for African nations and a workers assistance program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). The measure passed by voice vote after advancing 76 to 22 on a procedural motion.
Senators voice-voted a motion to go to a conference with the House to resolve differences over customs and enforcement legislation passed by each chamber. That bill is a high priority of Democrats who view it as essential to enforcing trade rules.
Obama's trade agenda almost ended up in a ditch earlier this month when House Democrats defeated TAA, which Senate Democrats had insisted move along with fast-track.
The House action unexpectedly kicked the trade debate back to the Senate, to the chagrin of pro-trade Democrats in the upper chamber who thought they had finished with the contentious issue.
A group of 14 swing Democrats came under heavy pressure from unions to
oppose fast-track after it became uncoupled from TAA. Labor officials argued that GOP leaders could not be trusted to get the worker assistance package through the House.
But McConnell and Boehner assured their Democratic partners that all four pieces of Obama's trade agenda,
including the customs bill favored by Democrats and a package of trade preferences for African nations, would pass.
"The House will consider TAA once it passes the Senate as part of a new trade preferences bill. And we are ready to go to conference on the customs bill," Boehner pledged in a statement Tuesday ahead of a procedural vote to
advance fast-track to a final vote.
To further entice wavering Democrats to back fast-track, McConnell added to the TAA package the Leveling the Playing Field Act, which empowers U.S. companies to petition the Commerce Department to respond to trade violations.
He also furnished for Democrats a letter signed by a group of Senate Republicans pledging to support TAA.
In the end, 13 of the 14 pro-trade
Democrats voted to advance fast-track to final passage, the same number who voted for a package that combined fast-track and TAA before Memorial Day.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) voted against ending debate on fast-track Tuesday and against final passage on Wednesday.
Pelosi, who led the effort to derail TAA earlier this month, signaled Wednesday that Democrats would accept it the second time.
"I'm disappointed that the TAA bill isn't nearly as robust as it should be in light of a trade agreement that encompasses 40 percent of the global economy," she wrote Wednesday in a Dear Colleague letter. "[But] while we may not all vote in the same manner on TAA, I will support its passage because it can open the door to a full debate on TPP."
Obama fought during the battle with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who warned fast-track would enable companies to evade U.S. laws, including curbs on the financial services industry.
The critique rankled Obama, who counts the 2010 Wall Street Reform Act among his signature achievements, and he accused Warren of political grandstanding.
He said Warren is a "politician like everybody else" who has "a voice that she wants to get out there" but her arguments don't stand the test of fact and scrutiny."
His response did not sit well with other Democratic trade skeptics such as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who called Obama's comment "disrespectful" and suggested it was sexist as well.
Anti-trade Democrats say the battle now shifts to approval of the TPP, which will need only 50 votes to pass the Senate under the protections of fast-track.
"When the inexcusable and anti-democratic veil of secrecy surrounding the TPP is finally lifted and the American people see what is actually in the agreement, they are going to force their representatives in Washington to vote that deal down," said Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, an outspoken opponent of Obama's trade agenda.
Mike Lillis contributed to this report.
This story was updated at 7:50 p.m.