Congress clears way for TPP trade deal in U.S.

Congress handed President Barack Obama a major victory on trade Wednesday, with the Senate approving "fast track" negotiating authority on trade.

President Barack Obama gets free hand on trade deals with bipartisan support

President Barack Obama wants fast-track trade negotiating power so he can push through the TransPacific Partnership and secure U.S. influence in Asia. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Congress handed President Barack Obama a major victory on trade Wednesday, with the Senate approving "fast track" negotiating authority on trade.

Senators voted 60 to 38 to approve legislation to streamline Congress's consideration of trade deals,and the bill now goes to Obama to be signed into law. 

Approval of fast track boosts Obama's hopes for a 12-nation TransPacific Partnership agreement that is essential to his effort to expand U.S. influence in Asia. Negotiating parties include Japan, Malaysia, Mexico and Canada.

The developments represented a remarkable turnabout for an initiative that House Democrats nearly killed this month.

Bipartisan support

Opening Senate debate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a frequent Obama antagonist, credited the president and Democrats who joined the GOP on the bipartisan measure long sought by a president nearing the end of his second term.

"We were really pleased to see President Obama pursue an idea we've long believed in," said McConnell, R-Ky. "We thank him for his efforts to help us pass a bill to advance it."

A final potential hurdle in the House crumbled when Democratic leaders said most colleagues would support a job retraining program that Obama wants.

Some anti-free-trade Democrats had urged defeat of a program meant to help workers displaced by trade agreements. Some saw the possible demise of the usually Democratic favourite as a possible way to pressure Obama not to sign fast track into law.

Obama has said he expects to enact the fast-trade measure and the retraining bill simultaneously. But with fast track headed to Obama, House Democrats acknowledged that there was no realistic way to force the president's hand.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California told colleagues that she would vote for trade adjustment assistance. Pelosi said it's time to start scrutinizing global trade agreements that Congress eventually will have to decide.

Losing American jobs

Other Democrats said they expect heavy support for the retraining program.

Unions and most congressional Democrats say free-trade deals cost U.S. jobs and reward countries that pollute and mistreat workers. But Obama and most Republican leaders say U.S. products must reach broader markets.

Some anti-trade groups say they will strongly oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact. Others seem more resigned to the likelihood of new U.S. trade agreements in Obama's final months in office.

Obama likely would ask Congress to ratify the TPP deal after the public has studied it.

If Obama goes ahead with the TPP, that will put pressure on Canada to make the kind of concessions that will secure its place in the agreement, possibly around supply management of dairy and other agricultural goods.