Trade bill clears Senate hurdle

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The Senate on Thursday, May 21, 2015 morning is facing a cliffhanger vote to start clearing procedural hurdles for a vote on giving President Barack Obama fast-track authority to finalize negotiations on the highly-contentious Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. It's unclear if Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have the 60 votes needed to advance to a full vote on Trade Promotion Authority, with several key senators still pushing amendments whose passage could make or break their support for TPA.

WASHINGTON — A free trade initiative that is pitting President Barack Obama against his own party cleared a major procedural hurdle in the Republican-controlled Senate on Thursday.

The 62-38 vote to end debate on the bill, moving it toward a final vote, was a victory for Obama, who had linked with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to push the bill despite opposition from Senate Democratic leaders.

“This last vote was a major step forward on this important legislation,” said Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican who sponsored the bill.

The Senate is now set to vote on changes to the bill, including one that would force the Obama administration to use trade deals to crack down on countries that manipulate the value of their currencies to give their exports a price advantage in the United States — an amendment the White House opposes because it would add a huge new complication into trade negotiations.

Even though Senate passage is ultimately now much more likely, the House could be tougher. There, tea party conservatives are linking up with liberals to form a broader populist opposition than what existed in the Senate.

The measure would hand the President six years’ worth of “trade promotion authority” — the power to submit trade deals to Congress for an up-or-down vote with limited debate and no amendments.

It’s considered crucial to finalizing the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal that serves as the economic underpinning of Obama’s “Asia pivot.” It would link 40% of the world’s economy, including the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada and Mexico.

The trade deal has launched an obscure commerce policy discussion into a fiery political battle that has positioned the President at odds with most of his party, particularly Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and driven a wedge between the Democratic presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton, and her primary challengers.

The Senate is also looking to dispense with the trade votes to move forward and take up bills to reform or reauthorize the Patriot Act, an issue that considers to deeply divide the Senate and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The House overwhelmingly passed the USA Freedom Act, a bipartisan bill to reform the Patriot Act and effectively end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone data on millions of Americans.

And while that bill was the result of a compromise between reform advocates and House Republican leadership, the bill is facing tough opposition in the Senate from powerful Republicans like McConnell, though the majority leader has vowed to allow a vote on the reform measure. He is pushing a competing bill to reauthorize the expiring Patriot Act provisions without any reforms.

By Eric Bradner, Jeremy Diamond and Ted Barrett