Washington | Reuters — U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for “fast-track” trade negotiating authority to help him strike a Pacific Rim deal cleared a key hurdle in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, paving the way for a final vote on the legislation Wednesday.
On Wednesday, the Senate was likely to vote to grant Obama the power to speed trade deals through Congress, including his Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If that happens, the fast-track measure would then go to the White House for Obama’s signature.
That would be a major win for the Democratic president and a setback for one of his allies, U.S. labour unions that have campaigned against the TPP out of fear that it could destroy U.S. jobs. Still, another question remains.
The Senate also was expected to vote soon on legislation to extend and expand a program of federal aid for workers hurt by international trade. If it is approved, the bill would go to the House of Representatives.
House Democrats voted against that bill just 11 days ago. But that vote was meant to block fast-track, and by extension the TPP. Circumstances have now changed and trade-pact supporters are betting that the House will approve the worker aid bill the next time around.
A House vote on fast-track is possible on Thursday, if the Senate approves it.
“Our goal is to get (both measures) to the president’s desk this week,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement.
The White House has said that it wants both bills to reach the president’s desk to be signed into law. But a spokesman offered no clarity on Tuesday on whether the president would sign one without the other, or wait for them both to arrive.
Obama administration spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama had no set time frame for signing the bills but that the president is expected to approve both.
The Senate voted 60-37 on Tuesday to limit debate on the fast-track measure. That just barely satisfied the 60-vote threshold needed after two senators who supported the bill on its first run through the Senate a month ago — Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Ben Cardin — changed their votes to “no.”
“Today is a very big vote. It’s an important moment for the country,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s top Republican, in urging senators to support the 12-nation TPP, a central part of Obama’s foreign policy pivot to Asia.
Democrat Sherrod Brown, who voted “no” on fast-track, said the trade deal would benefit companies at the expense of workers. “This is a day of celebration in the corporate suites of this country,” he said after the vote.
Fast-track legislation would let lawmakers set negotiating objectives for trade deals, including the TPP, but restrict them to yes-or-no votes on final agreements.
That would leave just one section of the four-part trade package outstanding, a bill to strengthen customs and enforcement that must be considered by a joint committee of lawmakers from both chambers.
Trading partners want fast-track enacted before finalizing TPP, the biggest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement liberalized commerce between the U.S., Canada and Mexico two decades ago.
The TPP, potentially a legacy-defining agreement for Obama, would open markets for U.S. exporters such as Intel and Caterpillar, extend monopoly periods for Pfizer and rivals’ medicines, and cut import costs for companies such as Wal-Mart.
— Krista Hughes and Richard Cowan report for Reuters from Washington, D.C.