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US Senate OKs Obama's 'Fast-Track' Trade Authority

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks during a news conference regarding the Trade Promotion Authority bill, Capitol Hill, May 19, 2015.

The Republican-led U.S. Senate handed President Barack Obama a major victory Friday night when it passed the Trade Promotion Authority bill.

The lawmakers voted 62-37 in favor of the so-called “fast-track” trade bill. The president’s trade agenda faced opposition from some members of his Democratic Party who tried to block its passage.

Afterward Obama called the bill "vital to expanding opportunities for the middle class, leveling the playing field for American workers, and establishing rules for the global economy that help our businesses grow and hire by selling goods 'Made in America' to the rest of the world."

The Trade Authority bill is expected to face a rocky road to passage in the House of Representatives, where it will need support from many Republicans for a majority vote. The House is not expected to act on the trade bill until June, since most congressmen have left town for a Memorial Day holiday break.

Urging the House to take quick action on the legislation when it returns from recess, Secretary of State John Kerry described the bill as essential to the United States' economic security.

Fast-track authority

Fast-track negotiating authority allows the president to propose trade agreements that Congress can either reject or ratify, but not change. Obama has said presidential trade authority is crucial to advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership of Nations, or TPP, which would create the world’s largest free trade zone, spanning half the globe.

On Friday, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, made an impassioned plea to pass the bill and ultimately endorse TPP. That trade partnership, Corker said, would help Americans — both in his state of Tennessee and across the U.S. — export more goods, and also benefit people in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Importantly," Corker added, "it will draw those countries [closer] to the United States, and it will act as a buffer against the dominance that is taking place now with China.”

"We've always known that one of the paths to more good-paying jobs in our country is exports," Senator Ron Wyden of (D-Ore.) said. "There are going to be a billion middle-class people — a billion — in the developing world in 2025. And these are people with money. ... They're going to buy our wine, our computers, our helicopters, our planes — all kinds of goods and services with the American brand."

However, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Wyden's junior colleague from the Pacific Northwest state of Oregon, sharply criticized TPP.

"What we've seen in the wake of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and free-trade agreements that have followed is not only a tremendous loss of jobs but a tremendous increase in inequality in this nation," he said.

Chinese concerns

Analysts say China's government is concerned that this enormous “anyone but China” trade club could threaten its economy, and is taking action to counter the possible trade alliance.

In the United States, fast-track authority and planned free-trade pacts with Pacific Rim nations and the European Union are opposed by a number of Democrats and some Republicans.

Opponents fear the huge free-trade zones will benefit multinational corporations at the expense of average citizens. The leader of the Democratic Party's minority bloc in the Senate, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada called the TPP "another example of how we have ignored in this Congress working men and women of this country.”

Labor unions and progressive groups fear the trade zones will export American jobs to countries with lower wages and inadequate safety conditions for workers.