US Senate approves fast-track trade authority for Obama

Washington (AFP) - The US Senate overcame bitter divisions on trade policy and passed legislation that gives President Barack Obama authority to swiftly forge international trade pacts, including a landmark Pacific Rim accord under negotiation.

The measure now heads to the House of Representatives where its fate is uncertain.

While Senate passage is a dramatic victory for Obama, the bill clearly faces a fierce debate in the lower chamber, where lawmakers signalled there is intense opposition from within Obama's own Democratic Party.

Passage of the so-called trade promotion authority bill allows the administration to finalize negotiations with 11 other Asian and Pacific nations and bring the trade deal to Congress for an up-or-down vote, with lawmakers not permitted to make changes.

The bill, which pushes Obama's top legislative priority in his second term, passed on a 62-37 vote, with all but a handful of Republicans backing their rival in the White House.

TPA is "likely the most important bill we'll pass this year," said Senate Finance Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, who co-wrote the legislation that lays out 150 ambitious US trade priorities including human rights, environment and labor protections.

"It shows that when the president is right we will support him."

But most Democrats voted no, highlighting some of their fiercest opposition to Obama in his six-plus years in office.

Senate Democrat Jeff Merkley crystalized the sentiments of many free-trade critics, who say the accord will promote a hemorrhaging of American jobs, much like the North American Free Trade Agreement is blamed for doing a generation earlier.

"We have lost five million jobs and 50,000 factories," Merkley told his colleagues. "This is simply the wrong direction to go."

Supporters said the Pacific trade accord -- the largest in history -- will eliminate trade tariffs and level the playing field for US exports.

And TPA will ensure the most progressive framework of any global trade deal, they said.

- 'Strong standards' -

Obama offered swift praise for the result of the closely watched vote.

He stressed that this TPA, previous versions of which were used by several presidents before him to conclude trade deals, includes "strong standards that will advance workers' rights, protect the environment, promote a free and open Internet, and it supports new robust measures to address unfair currency practices."

Obama encouraged timely action in the House, but Republican leadership there essentially warned that passage would be up to Obama's own party.

"The House will take up this measure, and Republicans will do our part, but ultimately success will require Democrats putting politics aside and doing what's best for the country," House Speaker John Boehner said after the Senate vote.

And some conservative Republicans, too, could revolt, unwilling to cede ever more power to the executive branch.

Amid a tense series of Senate votes, lawmakers rejected several amendments to the trade bill, including a controversial provision requiring enforceable measures to punish nations which manipulate their currency in order to gain price advantages for their exports to the United States.

Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, headquarters of the US auto industry, argued that the currency intervention by the Bank of Japan, for example, was creating a difference of between $6,000 and $11,000 in the cost of an American automobile there.

Hatch nevertheless warned such a measure would "kill" TPA and the trade deal itself, which is a cornerstone of Obama's pivot to Asia and would economically link countries as diverse as Australia, Chile, Japan, Peru and Vietnam.

The Consumer Electronics Association welcomed the Senate's action.

"This legislation provides a much needed, balanced package that takes into account the realities of the digital economy and Internet era," the association's head Gary Shapiro said in a statement.