President Barack Obama's long-pursued trade agenda took a giant step toward becoming law on Tuesday, and opponents grudgingly conceded they now must fight on less-favorable terrain.
A key Senate vote greatly brightened Obama's hopes for a 12-nation Pacific-rim trade agreement, a keystone of his effort to expand US influence in Asia. The trade pact would be a high point in a foreign policy that has otherwise been consumed by crisis management, and would give Obama a rare legislative achievement in the Republican-controlled Congress.
The Senate voted 60-37 to advance his bid for "fast track" negotiating authority. That was the minimum number of votes needed on the procedural question. But final passage, expected no later than Wednesday, needs only a simple majority, which would let Obama sign fast track into law.
The president also wants to continue a retraining program for workers displaced by international trade. House and Senate support appears adequate, but even if that measure stumbles, the long-coveted fast track bill will be on Obama's desk.
"This is a very important day for our country," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. In the strange-bedfellows politics of trade, he was among the Republican congressional leaders vital in pushing the agenda forward, with only modest help from Democrats.
The big majority of Democrats, especially in the House, oppose free-trade agreements, as do the labor unions that play important roles in Democratic primaries. They say free-trade agreements ship US jobs overseas.
Obama, major corporate groups, GOP leaders and others say US products must reach more global markets. They say anti-trade forces have exaggerated the harm done by the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
Previous presidents have enjoyed fast track authority. It lets them propose trade pacts that Congress can reject or ratify, but not change or filibuster.
Obama wants to complete negotiations for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Members include Japan, Mexico and Canada. He would ask Congress to ratify it, following weeks or months of public scrutiny that will give opponents another shot.
Several such organizations said they will regroup and fight on.
The liberal group MoveOn.org said fast track "puts the interests of massive, multinational corporations over those of American workers, consumers, and voters." When the Pacific-rim proposal becomes public, the group said, "MoveOn members and our allies nationwide will hold our elected officials accountable and urge them to vote down any deal that's bad for the American economy."
Some anti-free-trade groups, however, essentially conceded defeat.
"Fast track makes it virtually certain that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), and other secret trade deals will become law," said the "Internet-freedom" group Fight for the Future.
Tuesday's Senate vote was as painful for the AFL-CIO and other unions as it was welcomed by the White House. Many corporate, agricultural and manufacturing groups cheered.
The Senate vote "is an important step towards revitalizing our economy, creating more good American jobs, and reasserting our country's global economic leadership," said US Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue.
The Senate was poised to give final passage to fast track on Wednesday — or possibly late Tuesday — and then address three other trade-related bills.
The most important would extend trade adjustment assistance, which provides aid and retraining to workers displaced by international trade. The House also would have to endorse the program for it to become law.
The retraining program is usually a union and liberal priority. But House Democrats this month voted against it in hopes of scuttling fast track, which was part of the same measure. Obama's trade allies rescued the agenda by decoupling the items and passing fast track, by itself, in the Senate on Tuesday.
Some House Democrats still talk of blocking the retraining program, because Obama has insisted on signing it along with fast track. Others, however, say they've lost their legislative leverage and ending the program for displaced workers would be counterproductive.
Presidential politics threw a brief scare into pro-trade senators early Tuesday. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, a presidential hopeful, flipped his vote from support in May to opposition, saying the issue had become "enmeshed in corporate backroom deal-making."
The only other senator to change positions was Ben Cardin, D-Md. He voted in favor of fast track in May, but voted to block it Tuesday.
For all the bitter politics over trade, many economists say new trade agreements might affect the US economy only modestly. Jobs lost to trade might be roughly offset by jobs created, they say.
Still, Obama and others say greater US assertiveness on world trade will lessen China's influence in Asia and elsewhere. Obama says China could eventually join the Pacific-rim pact, but China would have to abide by its environmental, economic and workplace rules.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters, "our work on trade is not finished."
"With bipartisan support from Congress," he said, fast track "will help America write the rules of the road and ensure that our new global economy will be constructed to allow more hardworking Americans to compete and win."