WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Senate advanced legislation Thursday to give President Barack Obama fast-track authority to forge a huge Asia-Pacific trade accord, after lawmakers struck a deal on a vote re-authorising the Export-Import Bank.
The measure would allow the Obama administration to conclude negotiations with 11 other Pacific Rim nations and bring a trade accord to Congress for an up or down vote, with lawmakers not permitted to make changes.
"It was a nice victory. We're going to continue and finish up the Bill this week," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has strongly backed Obama's expanded free-trade agenda despite opposition from leading Democrats.
A final vote could come Friday or Saturday.
Obama hailed Thursday's vote as "a big step forward."
"It's an agenda that is good for US businesses, but most importantly, it is good for American workers," the President said at his White House Cabinet meeting.
If it passes the Senate, Obama's top legislative priority for his second term goes to the House of Representatives, where leaders have discussed a possible June vote.
But several Democrats have signalled it will be tough to whip up enough support in that chamber.
Supporters say the measure, known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), features 150 progressive US negotiating priorities, including key human rights provisions, and provides assistance for American workers affected by globalisation.
Critics, such as independent Senator Bernie Sanders, say the Pacific accord would fuel a race to the bottom, with American workers losing out to labourers in other countries "making pennies an hour."
TPA nearly failed to advance in the Senate, when several pro-trade Democrats withheld their support until they received reassurances from McConnell on another issue: reauthorisation of the Export-Import Bank.
Operational authority for the bank, which provides financing for American exports, expires on June 30, and several Republicans, including members of House leadership, have signaled they want to see ExIm's operations draw to a close.
"I think in today's world, where interest rates are low, this is a perfect time to wind down ExIm," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Monday.
GREASING THE SKIDS?
In a bout of old-school congressional haggling on the Senate floor, huddling lawmakers broke the impasse on trade, voting 62-38 to end debate on the Bill.
Senate Democrat Patty Murray of Washington state, where top employer Boeing benefits from the bank's financing, told reporters she had been promised a vote on ExIm in June.
"I supported the trade package that came out of the Finance Committee," she said. "I'm glad that we have a path forward on both ExIm and trade."
Democrats are poised to offer several amendments to the trade Bill, including one that would require the Obama administration to crack down on countries that manipulate their currency in order to gain unfair price advantage and boost their exports.
The White House strongly opposes the amendment, warning it could threaten the entire Asia accord.
The trade push has caused a rift between Obama and several Democrats in his party, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Warren, an emerging liberal firebrand, has clashed openly with Obama on trade, slamming the administration for negotiating the Asian accord - known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership - in absolute secrecy.
The Senate will "vote on whether to grease the skids to make that secret trade deal, the TPP, the law of the land. This isn't how democracy is supposed to work," she said on the Senate floor.
Warren opposes fast-track authority, which she said would force lawmakers to relinquish their right to weigh in on the accord before it is completed.