Fast-track authority for Trans-Pacific Partnership advances in Senate

The fast-track trade measure still faces an uphill battle in the House

WASHINGTON — After a flurry of last-minute legislative wrangling, the Senate on Thursday advanced a measure that would give President Obama so-called fast-track authority to complete a pending trade pact with leading Pacific nations.

Senators voted 62 to 38 to push forward the measure, which is supported by the White House and most Republicans but opposed by many Democrats worried that the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership would hurt American workers.

Obama, who personally telephoned at least one key West Coast Democrat as the vote dragged during final floor negotiations, thanked senators "who took a big step forward."

The president said his trade agenda "is consistent with strong labor standards, strong environmental standards, and is going to open up access to markets that too often are closed even as these other countries are selling goods here in the United States.

"It's an agenda that's good for U.S. businesses, but most importantly, good for American workers."

Final Senate passage was expected Thursday night or Friday, but the measure still faces an uphill battle in the House.

Earlier Thursday, Democrats nearly blocked the legislation from advancing over a separate dispute related to the future of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which is in jeopardy of shutting down next month if Congress fails to reauthorize it.

The bank helps major U.S. corporations finance their business overseas, but it has become derided by tea party Republicans as a form of corporate welfare.

Republicans in the House have said they would prefer to allow the bank to wind down rather than continue it.

But several lawmakers from both parties have businesses in their states that depend on the bank. Aerospace giant Boeing and other customers of the bank are pressing for it to continue.

After hurried negotiations on the Senate floor, a deal was reached to allow a separate vote on extending the bank's authority, removing the final hurdle standing in the way of advancing the trade bill.

The logjam was broken after Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) won concessions in her floor fight to save the Export-Import Bank.

First, she fielded a call from Obama, who assured her he would fight for the bank. "The president committed that reauthorization of the credit agency will be a priority of his current trade agenda," Cantwell said.

Then she secured a commitment from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that the Senate would vote in June on the Export-Import issue.

The fast-track bill is a trade priority for the Obama administration, which is wrapping up largely secret negotiations with Japan and the other Pacific nations.

The measure guarantees that when the massive trade pact is ready for a vote, Congress would not be able to amend it.

After Senate passage, the measure will move to the House, where it is expected to meet stiff resistance from both Democrats and Republicans.

Although conservative Republicans are wary of giving Obama fast-track authority, most Democrats continue to oppose trade deals. In the Senate, 13 Democrats joined most Republicans to advance the measure, while five Republicans joined most Democrats to oppose.

"People are clearly unhappy with trade policy in this Congress, reflecting the deep unhappiness in the country with trade agreements," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who voted no. "They make big promises of more jobs and higher wages, and the results are lost jobs and stagnant wages."

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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