WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's trade agenda cleared a key Senate hurdle and advanced toward passage on Thursday despite the strong opposition of most Democrats.
The 62-38 vote capped a long, tense roll call on a measure that will allow Obama to negotiate trade deals that Congress can only accept or reject, but not change.
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 at June 30, and conservatives in the House are making a major effort to put it out of business.
The White House sought the legislation to improve prospects for a trade treaty under negotiations with 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. 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 be especially embarrassing.
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, saying they ship U.S. job overseas. 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.
More troubling to the White House was seeing several fast-track supporters announce they won't help until Congress lays out a plan to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank. The bank helps finance exports for large companies such as Boeing.
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington led the effort. But at least one Republican, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined her.
"Those who believe in trade are complete hypocrites if they want to defund the bank," Graham told reporters, "because our domestic manufacturers are having to compete in developing nations with Ex-Im banks of China, France, Germany and throughout the world."
Leading the Senate's fast-track effort is Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah. Asked if the Ex-Im issue was making it tougher to round up 60 votes, he said: "Everything here makes it tougher. You just have to go on ahead."
Hatch said he had no reliable nose-count for Thursday's vote.