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Senate tries again on fast-track trade bill

The Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington.

AP

The Senate has passed two trade-related bills Democrats were seeking and has begun debate on legislation that would fast-track congressional approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive free-trade deal with the Asia Pacific region.

Lawmakers approved the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a measure to encourage sub-Saharan African countries to increase trade access and build free markets, by a vote of 97 to 1. They also passed a customs and currency bill that would prevent countries from keeping their artificially low in order to keep their products relatively inexpensive. That legislation received 78 votes in favor and 20 against.

Senators also voted 65 to 33 to begin debate on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), legislation which would "fast-track" the trade deal through the congressional approval process. Lawmakers would have to vote yes or no on the entire trade deal and would forego the ability to change individual provisions. The legislation also includes Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which provides federal aid to workers who find themselves jobless due to trade agreements. The success comes on the heels of a failure earlier this week when a group of pro-trade Democrats blocked the first procedural vote on TPA because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, did not promise votes on TAA, African Growth and Opportunity act and the customs and currency bill.

The Democratic Party is divided over the TPP trade agreement, with President Obama finding his base of support among the Republican Party and a small group of Democrats. Many others are convinced the agreement would send more American jobs overseas, hurt wages at home, and harm the environment.

With the formal votes on two of the other three trade bills, the Democrats who support the trade bill voted to begin debate on fast-track legislation and the federal aid for displaced workers. Since House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has indicated that the House will not take up the currency bill, Senate Democrats are likely to offer it as an amendment to the fast-track legislation.

Most of the "no" votes on the currency bill came from Republicans, who fear it could undermine the larger trade deal. The White House has made the same argument and also said it could compromise independence of the Federal Reserve.

Earlier this week, w hen asked whether the president would veto a TPA bill that included a measure on currency provision, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said, "I'm not willing to make that commitment at this point."

The White House has indicated its support for the TPA and TAA bills in their current form.

But House Democrats could stymie the fast-track legislation in the House since there is widespread opposition to the trade deal. With some Republicans reluctant to give Mr. Obama so much authority over the deal, it is all but certain that some Democrats will have to vote yes to get the bill to the president's desk.

In a statement Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said Democratic members are "trying to find a path to yes" on the trade agreement but are concerned about the fact that it would fast-track trade agreements for the next six years.

"While three years in the Trade Promotion Authority bill may be appropriate for foreseeable trade agreements, there is unease with a process that would provide carte blanche for agreements unknown, for countries to be determined, for a time in perpetuity," Pelosi said. "This is just one of concerns Members have with the TPA before the Senate. We hope this legislation will be improved in the amendment process."

CBS News Producer John Nolen contributed to this report.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.