WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama's trade agenda cleared a key Senate hurdle and advanced toward likely passage on Thursday despite the strong opposition of most Democrats.
The 62-38 vote capped a long, tense roll call on a measure that would allow Obama to negotiate trade deals that Congress can accept or reject, but not change. If opponents had garnered three more votes, they would have blocked the legislation with a procedural move.
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang during their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 25, 2013. (AP Photo)
With Republicans generally in favor of the measure, the pivotal votes were cast by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and a handful of other lawmakers who support the trade measure. They used the showdown as leverage to seek a commitment that the Senate would act next month on legislation to keep the Export-Import Bank in existence. The government-backed bank backs overseas sales by U.S. companies.
The bank's legal authority expires June 30, and conservatives in the House are making a major effort to put it out of business.
Obama and major business groups worked in the final hours to help secure the needed Senate votes on trade. Obama made phone calls late Wednesday night to Democratic senators including Cantwell and Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat handling the trade legislation.
And leaders of the Business Council met early Thursday with Democratic Senate leaders. They included Boeing chief executive James McNerny, a strong supporter of reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank, said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, said the Ex-Im was among the topics discussed.
Durbin said the agreement to allow a Senate vote on the Ex-Im Bank in June was crucial to Thursday's outcome. He said he understood that the GOP-led House would allow a vote in that chamber, too. But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he has made no such commitment.
The White House seeks the trade legislation to improve prospects for a treaty under negotiations with 11 other Pacific-Rim nations. Supporters say a deal would boost U.S. exports and create jobs for an economy still not showing full strength.
Labor unions and other groups vital to Democrats strongly oppose Obama's trade agenda. They say free-trade deals cost U.S. jobs.
There were 49 Republicans and 13 Democrats who voted to advance the measure Thursday. Another 31 Democrats, two independents and five Republicans opposed.
The trade agenda is among Obama's highest second-term priorities. Support was thought to be higher in the Senate than in the House, which is awaiting trade action, so a Senate defeat would have been especially embarrassing.
Wyden told reporters, "We had two big issues that we basically worked through the night on." They were the Ex-Im Bank and the number of types of amendments senators can offer to the trade bill.
The politics of trade have been strange from the start. Republican lawmakers generally support expanded trade deals, but many are loath to give Obama any new victories.
Most congressional Democrats and key liberal groups oppose new trade deals. But an uncertain number of House and Senate Democrats support Obama on trade, and the White House has lobbied heavily to expand that group.
Senate critics are attacking the fast-track bill from many sides. Some demand crackdowns on countries that make their exports more affordable by keeping the currency artificially low.
Others insist that Congress first deal with pending expirations of a domestic surveillance program and the Export-Import Bank.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., spent hours on the Senate floor Wednesday criticizing the surveillance program.