Obama's Pacific Trade Pact Nears Approval in U.S. Congress

A small group of protesters shout at senate offices as they demonstrate against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement on Capitol Hill in Washington June 23, 2015. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's bid to boost U.S. economic ties with Asia neared approval on Wednesday, when a six-week congressional battle will culminate in a decisive Senate vote on legislation needed to seal his hallmark Pacific Rim trade deal.

After two brushes with failure, some fancy legislative footwork and myriad backroom deals to keep the legislation alive, lawmakers are expected to grant Obama the power to negotiate trade deals and send them on a fast track through Congress.

Passage could push the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a central part of Obama's foreign policy pivot to Asia, over the finish line in time to get it through Congress before year-end.

The deal, potentially a legacy-defining achievement for Obama, would create a free-trade zone stretching from Japan to Chile, comprising 40 percent of the world economy and raising annual global economic output by nearly $300 billion.

The Senate voted 60-37 on Tuesday to clear a procedural path for a final vote on passage of fast-track authority, which would let lawmakers set negotiating goals for trade deals, including TPP, but restrict them to yes-or-no votes on final agreements.

The fast-track legislation itself now only needs a majority of votes to pass, a hurdle it cleared easily more than a month ago on its first run through the Senate.


The last congressional hurdle to the trade package also appears to be disintegrating.

Fast-track was forced back to the Senate floor after a revolt by House of Representatives Democratsresulted in fast-track being split from a companion measure extending a program to help workers hurt by trade.

That bill faces a separate vote in the Senate, as early as Wednesday, and another in the House. Many Democrats who opposed it last week now plan to support it, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

"I will support its passage because it can open the door to a full debate on TPP," she said in a letter to colleagues. The top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Sander Levin, said he expects the "vast majority" of Democrats to vote "yes."

Republicans hope to pass both measures this week and send them to Obama for approval, before going on a week-long break.

The bruising congressional battle has pitted Obama against many in his own party, including Pelosi, and prompted blood-letting among Republicans after party leaders lashed out at conservatives who refused to back the trade agenda.

Although opinion polls show a majority of Americans support trade in general, congressional approval has been a tough slog because labor unions and activists have campaigned against fast-track, warning of job losses and vowing to retaliate against Democrats who break ranks to support trade.

The front runner for the party's presidential nomination in 2016, Hillary Clinton, said Democratic critics had legitimate concerns but has so far reserved judgment on the TPP.

The TPP would be the biggest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement 20 years ago between the United States, Canada and Mexico.