The U.S. House of Representatives, by a 215 to 214 vote, has passed a bill that would renew presidential negotiating authority, which expired in 1994. The issue is a key priority for the Bush administration.
Trade promotion authority, or 'fast track,' would allow the president to negotiate trade deals that Congress could approve or reject, but not amend.
Supporters say without such authority, other countries would refuse to negotiate seriously with the United States because Congress could change any agreement.
The House rejected 'fast track' in 1998, with many Democrats arguing that free trade deals could erode labor and environmental standards.
The bill that passed Thursday contained some labor and environmental protections to ease such concerns, although some Democrats were not convinced.
Congressman David Bonior of Michigan was a leading opponent of the measure. "Our trade agreements should promote human rights and democracy, they should improve working conditions across the world, and they should protect our environment and quality of life," he said. "If we give the president fast-track authority, we will have no opportunity to push for these protections. We will abandon our Constitutional responsibility. For the American people, fast track will be a bullet train to the unemployment line."
Many Republicans, on the other hand, argue trade promotion authority would help create jobs. They also say it would enhance U.S. foreign policy.
Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois warned lawmakers that voting down the measure would send the wrong signal at a time when the United States is leading a campaign against terrorism. "We say to the world that we fight a war around this world on terrorism that we would rather retreat to splendid isolationism than engage in the world economy," he stressed. "That is the wrong choice."
The measure now goes to the Senate.