WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate Wednesday voted to renew trade promotion authority for the first time in nearly eight years, setting the stage for a Pacific Rim partnership that some have heralded as the largest trade pact in history.
The 60-38 vote renewing “fast-track” authority for six years is a significant victory for the Obama White House. Fast-track authority allows the president to negotiate trade agreements and submit them to Congress for a straight "yes-or-no" vote, without the ability to amend or change the agreements.
The legislation is critical to President Obama’s second-term trade agenda which hopes to finalize the terms of a Trans-Pacific Partnership between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim nations. The bill, however, moved through Congress in fits and starts thanks in large part to the president’s own party.
Both Senate and House Democrats, buttressed with labor union support, have opposed trade promotion authority on the grounds that the international trade agreements it could bring life to would hurt the American working class and move jobs and incomes overseas.
Fast track was initially able to clear the Senate late last month, but only after lawmakers tied the legislation to trade adjustment assistance, a measure meant to aid workers who lose their jobs as a result of global trade and curry favor with pro-labor Democrats.
But House Democrats derailed the legislation just weeks later, voting down TAA while voting in favor of TPA, knowing one could not pass without the other.
In order to save fast-track authority, House and Senate Republicans agreed to separate the two bills, promising their Democratic counterparts that if TPA advanced, TAA would follow. The plan worked: the House passed the standalone TPA bill late last week, the Senate followed suit six days later.
The Senate is expected to take a procedural vote on TAA shortly after Wednesday’s vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has promised both bills will reach the president’s desk by week’s end.
It’s been almost eight years since fast-track authority was last in effect. Before that, the president was granted the authority between 1975 and 1994 and again from 2002 through 2007.
"This is a critical day for our country. In fact, I'd call it an historic day," the bill’s co-author Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told reporters Wednesday. "This is perhaps the most important bill we'll pass in the Senate this year."