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Trade Promotion Authority passes Senate, heads for Obama’s desk

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  • The Senate has approved Trade Promotion Authority, legislation that guarantees an up-or-down vote for President Obama's controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.
  • On Tuesday, exactly 60 senators voted to overcome a filibuster on the legislation, allowing work on the legislation to move forward. The same number voted to approve the legislation on Wednesday.
  • Because the House has already approved the legislation, the bill will go straight to Obama's desk for signature.
  • The vote represents a victory for Obama and Republican leaders in Congress, who have struggled to pass trade legislation over the past several weeks.

Trade Adjustment Assistance was a big sticking point

This isn't the first time the Senate has passed TPA legislation. Back in May, the Senate passed a trade package that combined TPA with an extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), programs to help workers whose jobs are displaced by foreign competition. That's because the 13 Democratic senators who voted for the package had insisted that TAA be included. And Republicans needed help from Democrats to get the 60-vote supermajority required to overcome a filibuster.

But this package died in the House — House Republicans were unwilling to vote for TAA, which they viewed as wasteful government spending, while many House Democrats wanted to stop a trade agreement they saw as a bad deal.

So last week, the House passed a standalone TPA bill and sent it back to the Senate. Republican leaders then made Senate Democrats a promise: If they agreed to support the TPA legislation, then a TAA bill would be brought up for a vote later in the week. And because it would then no longer be tied to TPA, it would have a better chance of passing.

The gambit worked. Enough Senate Democrats voted for the package to overcome a filibuster. Senate Democrats are counting on Republican leaders to bring Trade Adjustment Assistance up for a vote later this week.

Yesterday's vote was a squeaker

The key test of the legislation came on Tuesday, when Senate leaders needed 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

Nevada Republican Dean Heller clinched it, striding onto the floor about half an hour after the vote began. But the most lobbied vote may have been that of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) worked her on the floor, as did several other pro-trade Democrats.

"So do you have 60 votes?" she asked Cornyn at one point.

She ended up voting yes. Because they only got 60, she or any other yes voter can be portrayed in negative campaign ads as the deciding vote.

After Tuesday's vote, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised his colleagues.

"We demonstrated we can work together on a bipartisan basis" to achieve a goal, he said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) rebutted him on the floor.

"It is a great day for big-money interests," Sanders said, "not a great day for working families."

What comes next

The debate over Obama's trade deal isn't over. In fact, in some ways it hasn't even started. The president hopes to wrap up negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal in the next few months. Then it will go to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

So this week's passage of TPA guarantees that Congress will promptly vote on the deal, but it doesn't guarantee that it will be approved.

Correction: We originally mislabeled Heidi Heitkamp as a Republican.