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Obama's Pacific trade pact progresses on US Senate vote
[WASHINGTON] President Barack Obama's quest for a Pacific Rim trade deal to strengthen US ties with Asia advanced on Tuesday, with the Senate moving toward a final vote on granting Obama the power to speed trade agreements through Congress.
Senate approval of "fast-track" negotiating authority for the president was likely to follow on Wednesday. That would move the trade package closer to completion, but a hurdle on a related measure remained in the House of Representatives.
In a win for Obama and a defeat for labour unions sceptical of the trade deal, the Senate voted 60-37 to limit debate on the fast-track measure. That just barely satisfied the 60-vote threshold needed after two senators who supported the bill on its first run through the Senate a month ago - Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Ben Cardin - changed their votes to "no".
"Today is a very big vote. It's an important moment for the country," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the chamber's top Republican, in urging senators to support Obama's 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, a central part of his foreign policy pivot to Asia.
Democrat Sherrod Brown, who voted "no," said the trade deal would benefit companies at the expense of workers. "This is a day of celebration in the corporate suites of this country," he said after the vote. Unions and strongly liberal groups said they would punish trade supporters for their votes in upcoming elections.
Fast-track legislation would let lawmakers set negotiating objectives for trade deals, including the TPP but restrict them to yes-or-no votes on final agreements.
If the Senate on Wednesday approves the fast-track legislation, which now needs only a majority of votes in the 100-member chamber, it will go to Obama to be signed into law. But he has said that he also wants congressional passage of a related measure that would renew aid for workers hurt by trade.
A bill to do that must pass the Senate and then return to the House, where Democrats voted it down earlier this month in a bid to stop fast-track. Republicans were betting that House Democrats would back the worker aid program this time since it is no longer formally paired with the fast-track bill. "Our goal is to get (both measures) to the president's desk this week," House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement.
That would leave just one section of the four-part trade package outstanding, a bill to strengthen customs and enforcement that must be considered by a joint committee of lawmakers from both chambers.
Trading partners want fast-track enacted before finalising TPP, the biggest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement liberalised commerce between the United States, Canada and Mexico two decades ago.
The TPP, a potential legacy-defining agreement for Obama, would open markets for US exporters such as Intel Corp and Caterpillar Inc, extend monopoly periods for Pfizer Inc and rivals' medicines, and cut import costs for companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc.