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Senate leaders strike deal to move trade debate forward, but hurdles remain

May 13, 2015

President Obama’s free trade blitz is advancing, once again, in the Senate.

A day after Democrats in the chamber united to deny handing him the fast-track negotiating authority he wants to finish a massive Pacific Rim deal, Senate leaders on Wednesday afternoon announced an agreement to move forward on it.

Under the plan, Democrats will get votes on a measure cracking down on currency manipulation and beefing up trade enforcement, and another addressing African trade. But they will not be considered as part of the broader trade package. Democratic demands that the measures be joined together precipitated the meltdown on Tuesday.

The breakthrough, while significant, hardly clears the decks for Obama’s trade agenda, which the administration is pursuing as an economic capstone on his second term. The new framework sets up a debate on Senate passage of the fast-track bill next week. But that timing could slip because the chamber will also be dealing with extending a highway fund and a surveillance law before adjourning for a week-long Memorial Day recess.

Anti-trade forces have worked to slow Senate progress in hope that the debate slips into June, to give the labor and environmental groups more time to rally opposition. And the Senate, a body that’s generally favorable to trade deals, never presented Obama’s stiffest challenge. That will come in the House, where enough conservative Republicans are expected to balk at handing Obama extra authority that Democrats will need to supply the winning margin — a hodgepodge coalition that’s yet to materialize.

For more about overseas trade, watch this Fortune video:

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