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It’s official: Obama just won the first round of the trade fight

Obama Addresses US Conference Of Mayors Meeting In San FranciscoObama Addresses US Conference Of Mayors Meeting In San Francisco
President Barack ObamaPhotograph by Justin Sullivan — Getty Images

The Senate just crossed the T’s in “fast track,” formally approving the extra negotiating authority President Obama needs to wrap work on a massive Pacific Rim trade deal. In a 60-38 vote, Senators handed Obama the power to finalize the 12-nation pact, officially the Trans Pacific Partnership, and then submit it for a thumbs up-or-down decision in Congress. That could come as soon as this fall.

The Wednesday vote was anti-climactic: Obama’s free trade push cleared a higher hurdle on Tuesday, when pro-trade Senators marshaled 60 votes, the bare minimum, to cut off debate on the measure — weathering a splashy, last-minute defection from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

But for free traders, the Senate action marks the successful completion of a journey with two hairpin turnabouts, one in each chamber, that threatened to derail Obama’s top second-term priority.

A revolt by liberal House Democrats earlier this month posed the stiffest challenge, when Obama’s own ranks defeated a worker assistance program they otherwise support as a means to sink fast track. In the wake of that blowup, the White House huddled with Congressional Republican leadership and regrouped, devising a legislative do-se-do that delinked the two measures and got them both moving again. With fast track now on its way to the president’s desk, House Democrats signaled they will stand down by rallying behind the worker assistance bill, which extends a decades-old program to aid those displaced by imports.

Fast track’s approval ranks as a major victory for the Obama administration, first and foremost because it sets up the White House for a substantive breakthrough in the complex trade talks. The deal, interlacing markets from Japan to Peru that make up 40 percent of global economic activity, is at the center of Obama’s efforts to boost both exports and national security by strengthening the U.S. foothold in the region. Less directly, the win demonstrates that Obama still has juice in Congress — even one now ruled completely by Republicans — so he can’t be consigned to lame-duck status just yet.

Beyond the principals, the corporate lobby emerges as another winner. The big business campaign to help get fast track over the finish line endured some slings over the course of the fight, including from those on Capitol Hill they aimed to assist. Up against a surprisingly well-coordinated, energetic resistance from labor and environmental groups, the corporate effort managed to muster the votes when it counted — a key early triumph for a business community in the midst regrouping in Washington, yielding momentum it will try to build in the already-roiling fight over the Export Import bank and beyond.