Hurdle cleared in Senate on bill to give Obama fast-track authority on Pacific Rim trade deal

WASHINGTON (TIP): President Obama got a respite when Republicans and a small number of Democrats rescued his trade agenda from the brink of failure Thursday, May 21, clearing a key hurdle in the Senate.

However, doubts linger about the final outcome. The legislation’s fate in the House remains a tossup because Obama faces entrenched opposition from his own party.

But the Senate victory on Thursday   kept alive Obama’s bid to secure a broad trade deal with Pacific Rim nations by advancing legislation that would give him expanded authority to complete the accord.

On a vote of 62 to 38, the measure for fast-track authority received just enough Democratic support to keep it moving, following a last-ditch lobbying effort by Obama and his top advisers. The fate of the legislation, known as trade promotion authority, hung in the balance for more than 30 minutes during the vote.

During an afternoon meeting with his Cabinet at the White House, Obama thanked the senators who supported his push for fast-track powers, calling the vote “a big step forward this morning on a trade agenda that is consistent with strong labor standards, strong environmental standards and access to markets that too often are closed even as these other countries are selling goods in the United States.”

“It’s an agenda that is good for U.S. businesses, but most importantly, it is good for American workers,” Obama said.

Obama has said that he needs fast-track authority to complete the deal with the other nations, which represent about 40 percent of the global economy. If approved by Congress, it would allow for a trade deal to be presented to the House and the Senate under strict timelines and require a simple up-or-down vote without any amendments or requirements of a Senate super-majority to end debate.

Senate leaders hope to finish with the legislation over the weekend, possibly as early as Friday.

This week’s near-breakdown came as about 10 Democrats – who wavered over the legislation last week – issued a demand that congressional GOP leaders assure them that they would approve an extension of the federally backed bank that helps U.S. corporations sell their goods abroad. Many conservatives, particularly in the House, oppose renewing the charter of the Export-Import Bank because they consider it a form of corporate welfare that favors large, well-connected businesses, particularly Boeing.

Republicans, who have worked unusually closely with the Democratic administration over the past few months on their shared goal of advancing global trade, warned before the vote that those senators supporting the Export-Import Bank should not expect help from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) if Thursday’s vote failed.

As the roll call blew beyond the originally planned 15 minutes, the lawmakers reached a deal on the Export-Import Bank that tipped the scales for Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray (D), senators from Washington State, which relies on the thousands of jobs at Boeing plants that are tied to Export-Import Bank loans. Working with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), whose state also has large Boeing factories, they brought with them four additional Democrats to clear the 60-vote hurdle.

In the end, 49 Republicans and 13 Democrats voted to advance the legislation, while five Republicans and 33 members of the Democratic caucus opposed it.

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