Trade bill ekes through Senate, paving path to fast-track authority

The Senate narrowly approved the revised legislation Tuesday, despite considerable opposition from both sides of the aisle.

Mike Blake/Reuters
A demonstrator holds a sign as nurses rally outside the offices of Senator Dianne Feinstein's office to urge her to vote against the fast track authority of the Trans- Pacific Partnership in San Diego, Calif., Monday. The nurses say the trade agreement will endanger the environment and public health by allowing pharmaceutical companies to raise the cost of medications and overturn environmental and food safety regulations.

The Senate pushed President Obama’s trade legislation one step closer to final approval on Tuesday by voting to bring back a measure that was shot down less than two weeks ago.

The measure passed 60-37, receiving the absolute minimum number of votes required for advancement. Another bill awaits a vote later this week, part of the package that will go to Mr. Obama’s desk before the July 4 recess.

The first bill gives the president “fast track” authority to negotiate trade agreements between a total of 12 nations on both sides of the Pacific. It would allow Congress to approve or reject legislation, but not to amend it.

Fast track supporters say that otherwise, nations could be reluctant to compromise on trade deals for fear that Congress would demand additional concessions.

Opponents of the legislation, including organized labor and most Democrats, say free global trade is damaging for American workers, who would suffer job loss.

For this reason, the follow-up bill promises federal aid to displaced workers. The two bills were originally part of the same piece of legislation, subject to separate votes, but House Democrats voted against the aid portion, derailing the bill as a whole and forcing Obama, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio to revise.

The separation of the trade bill from the aid measure meant that one would rely on Republican support, and the other on Democratic.

In Tuesday’s vote, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland changed their stances, voting against the bill when they had initially approved it.

Senator Cruz said the bill had become "enmeshed in corporate backroom deal making," but did not say why he had originally been in favor of it.

Senator Cardin said he was unhappy with the separation of the aid provisions and that there lacked a "clear understanding of the path forward to the president's desk” for the follow-up bill.

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