WASHINGTON (AP) In a triumph for President Barack Obama, sweeping legislation to strengthen the administration s hand in global trade talks advanced toward Senate passage Thursday after a showdown vote that remained in doubt until the final moment.
The 62-38 vote, two more than the 60 needed, came from a solid phalanx of Republicans and more than a dozen Democrats. But the decisive thumbs-up came from Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington after she and a few others seized the moment as leverage to demand a vote next month on legislation to renew the Export-Import Bank.
The legislation would allow Obama to make trade deals that Congress could either support or reject but not change. Previous presidents have had similar authority, and administration officials argue that Japan and other Pacific-region countries in a current round of 12-nation trade talks will be unwilling to present bottom-line offers if they know lawmakers can seek more concessions.
“It was a nice victory. We re going to continue and finish up the bill this week,” Republican Majority leader Mitch McConnell, Obama s most important Senate ally on the trade bill, said after sealing the agreement. Cantwell, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and others had sought the agreement.
The Senate action to move toward a final vote was “a big step forward,” Obama said at the White House, predicting that a trade deal would “open up access to markets that too often are closed.” The president was up late Wednesday night placing telephone calls to lawmakers, and he spoke with Cantwell again shortly before the vote.
Final Senate passage would clear the way for a fierce struggle in the House.
The real political divide is over the value of international trade agreements themselves, and the result has been a blurring of traditional political lines.
Supporters say such agreements benefit the American economy by lowering barriers overseas and expanding markets for U.S. services and goods.
But in rebuttal that became particularly pronounced two decades ago when President Bill Clinton sought and won a North American Free Trade Agreement, labor unions and Democratic allies in Congress argue the deals cost jobs at home and send them to nations with lax environmental and safety standards and low wages.