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Republican-led Congress Hands Obama Major Win on Trade

FILE - U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (C) speaks after their party's caucus luncheons on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 23, 2015.

The U.S. Congress has granted President Barack Obama and his successor a powerful tool to get trade deals approved: so-called “fast-track” authority that shields proposed pacts from legislative meddling.

By a 60-38 vote, the Senate passed Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) late Wednesday, a measure that boosts prospects for two of the biggest trade deals in U.S. history. Under TPA, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be approved with simple-majority congressional votes. Lawmakers could not amend either accord.

“The key victory for American workers and products stamped ‘Made in the USA’ comes today,” said a jubilant Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell before the vote. “For American workers to have a fair shot in the 21st Century economy, it just makes sense to remove the unfair barriers that discriminate against them and the products that they make.”

Having been approved by both houses of Congress, TPA goes to the White House for President Obama’s signature less than two weeks after backers fretted it would die on Capitol Hill. The House of Representatives initially blocked trade legislation by voting down a retraining bill for workers displaced by foreign competition.

The Senate was poised to advance the worker retraining legislation, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi announced Wednesday she would vote for the measure after having led her caucus in opposition to it earlier this month.

Workers "Tossed Aside"

The sudden boost in momentum for free trade sorely disappointed opponents like Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for president as a Democrat.

“It’s a great day for the big-money interests, not a great day for working families,” said Sanders. “This trade agreement will continue the policies that have cost us millions of decent-paying jobs.”

Equally blunt were environmental groups and labor unions.

“History shows it makes no sense to give a quick up-or-down vote to bad trade deals like the TPP that will only ship jobs overseas and lower wages in the U.S.,” said Jim Hoffa, head of the Teamsters Union that represents American truckers. “Yet again, workers have been tossed aside by some lawmakers who are more interested in pleasing their corporate cronies than doing what’s best for their constituents.”

By contrast, Republican Senator Cory Gardner said free trade with Pacific Rim nations will bring enormous benefits and cast the debate as a test of American leadership in Asia.

“Do we want the United States – or do we want China – writing the rules?” Gardner asked. “It’s clear that while our partners and allies in the region may welcome additional Chinese investment, they want more American leadership, not less.”

The trade battle produced rare, if fleeting, political alliances in Washington. On this matter, the White House has had strong backing from Republican congressional leaders who, on almost every other issue, work arduously to thwart President Obama’s agenda. TPA sharply divided Democratic lawmakers who have been the targets of ferocious lobbying from advocates on both sides.