In a victory for President Barack Obama, the Senate voted 62 to 37 Friday night to pass a bill that would give the White House fast-track trade promotion authority, approving the White House’s top economic priority.
In June, the bill will head to the House, where a much tougher fight is expected. The bill is aimed at speeding passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation trade deal that would rank as the largest in history
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, one of the main architects of the legislation, said the Senate vote marked the beginning of “a new forward-thinking era in trade” for the United States.
The vote ended two weeks of divisive debate on the Senate floor and came after senators filed more than 200 amendments to the bill.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., touted the bill as a bipartisan effort, saying it “represents an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to stand strong together for the middle class.”
The fast-track bill would set the rules of debate for the Trans-Pacific Partnership after it’s submitted to Congress for approval. It would prohibit members of Congress from filibustering or amending the trade pact, making it easier for Obama to get it passed.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes Japan and Vietnam, would create new rules of trade for 40 percent of the global economy.
Backers say that strengthened trade ties with Asia would be a boon for U.S. businesses and create thousands of new jobs, while critics fear it would lead to more outsourcing of American jobs.
“We all know that trade is important for American workers and American jobs. And we all know that, by passing this legislation, we can show we’re serious about advancing new opportunities for bigger American paychecks, better American jobs, and a stronger American economy,” McConnell said.
Opponents said a new trade pact was unlikely to produce more U.S. jobs and would do nothing to improve the U.S. trade deficit.
“The trade deficit is going up and not down, and that’s not good.” said Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Other opponents feared the trade pact would lead to more pressure on U.S. employers to cut wages and hurt American workers in the long run.
“In my view, it is wrong to ask American workers to compete against people in Vietnam, where the minimum wage is 56 cents an hour,” said Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he hoped a strong vote of support for the fast-track bill in the Senate would send “a significant message to the House” as it prepares to take up the legislation.
That will happen next month, when the House returns to Washington after a week-long Memorial Day break.
While many Republicans are enthusiastic about the trade legislation, Obama is having a tougher time finding support in his own party. So far, only 13 Democratic House members have said they plan to vote for the fast-track bill.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the bill is “likely the most important” piece of legislation that Congress will vote on this year, noting that’s it’s a key priority for both Obama and the GOP.
And he said it’s important for Congress to move quickly toward final passage.
“Our nation’s economic health and prestige are on the line,” Hatch said.