The Senate voted 60-37 Tuesday to advance President Obama's trade agenda — setting up a big victory for the White House and a painful loss for labor unions.
This latest Senate vote clears away procedural hurdles for legislation granting Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) to Obama. That power allows the president to negotiate trade pacts and then put them on a so-called fast track through Congress. With TPA in place, Congress would take a simple yes-or-no vote on any trade deal, with no room for amendments.
For decades, presidents have asked Congress for this power, saying that other countries don't want to approve agreements with the United States unless they know any package is final. This trade-negotiation power has expired, and Obama wanted it renewed so that he could complete a deal with 11 Pacific Rim countries.
That trade deal, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is still being worked out. Its progress has been slowed by Obama's lack of fast-track authority.
But now, Obama is on course to get that power so he can complete TPP. The Senate still needs to take a final vote on TPA, but passage now requires just a simple majority. Given Tuesday's 60 votes in favor of clearing procedural hurdles, passage seems virtually certain when the Senate votes — probably on Wednesday.
The House has already approved fast-track authority.
So barring some amazing turnaround, Congress will send TPA legislation to Obama shortly, and he will sign it into law.
Unions have been putting up a fierce fight to stop TPA, which they say leads to secretive trade deals that benefit corporations but harm workers. After the vote, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a union supporter, took to the Senate floor to say the vote was "shameful" because it would open the door to more trade deals.
In contrast, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised the vote and said, "America is back in the trade business."
Even though TPA seems a virtual certainty, there's still a bit more drama to play out. It involves trade-related legislation that Democrats support. To win Democratic votes for TPA, Republican leaders in the House and Senate have pledged to allow votes on legislation renewing Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program to help displaced workers, as well as a bill to extend trade preferences to sub-Saharan African nations. McConnell also promised to move quickly to complete legislation that would step up enforcement of trade laws.
Those bills, supported by the White House and by the great majority of Democrats, have been stalled amid procedural maneuvering to get TPA done. It now appears they will move forward.
Moving forward with a full trade agenda has been a key goal for the White House. But the battle to do so has created a lot of hurt feelings between the Obama administration and trade opponents, who include union members, environmentalists and consumer advocates.
Those opponents are now regrouping for the next fight. Once fast-track authority is in place, Obama will be able to complete negotiations for TPP. Then Congress will have to vote on it, likely this fall. Robert Weissman, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, put out a statement saying that once "people see what is actually in the agreement, they are going to force their representatives in Washington to vote that deal down."