WASHINGTON -- The Senate passed a pair of trade protection measures Thursday, and voted shortly afterward to start debate on the fast-track bill that President Barack Obama needs to secure his massive and controversial free-trade initiatives with Asia and Europe.
One measure, which reauthorizes trade preferences for some African countries, faced little opposition, and passed by a vote of 96 to 1. But the second, a customs and trade enforcement package, was approved more narrowly, with 78 voting in favor and 20 opposed. The package was opposed by the Obama administration and many Republicans because it contains a measure that would crack down on currency manipulation -- particularly by China, the prime offender, but also by several members of Obama's proposed sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement with 11 other Pacific Rim nations.
With the currency crackdown passed, lawmakers were willing to let debate start on granting Obama what is known as trade promotion authority, voting 65 to 33 to proceed. TPA would allow the president to "fast-track" passage of the TPP deal and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a similarly massive agreement with Europe.
Opponents of the currency provision say it could spark a new trade war with China, and the administration argues that a number of the Asian trade partners would likely pull out of the broader TPP deal if currency manipulation is addressed.
But in the view of most Democrats, and some Republicans, there should be no new free trade deals if the United States is not going to address the advantages other countries and their businesses get from keeping their currencies artificially low.
"Now is the time to think deeply and comprehensively about this country's trade policy," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has taken the lead in fighting for the currency provision. "We have lost millions of jobs because of currency manipulation, which makes the imports of China about 33 percent cheaper."
While the White House opposes the measure -- and its future passage in the House of Representatives is far from certain -- Senate Democrats insisted that it be considered before they would debate giving Obama his fast track.
Democrats -- including staunch free-traders like Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden -- united to stall the fast-track bill earlier in the week by extracting a vote on the customs package. The package includes numerous other trade enforcement reforms, including bans on goods made with forced or child labor.
"I can't think of the last time the Senate spoke with such an emphatic voice on a trade issue," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the prime architect of the Democrats' mini-revolt. "The simple message [is] we cannot have trade promotion without trade enforcement ... We shouldn't be passing new agreements while doing nothing to enforce existing laws and support American companies dealing with unfair competition."
Wyden, who made the entire push for the trade bills possible by cutting deals with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), insisted that the customs bill would ensure that the new trade deals are better than the failed pacts of the past.
"The NAFTA playbook, the playbook for trade in the 1990s, is gone, and it is a new day in trade policy," Wyden said before the votes. "The trade promotion act is not the trade policy of the 1990s, is not the North American Free Trade Agreement, and what we're going to do today is essentially starting with the question of how vigorous trade enforcement ought to be at the forefront of America's trade policy in 2015 and beyond."
With passage of the two measures on Thursday, the Senate was set to start debating the TPA bill that had been stalled earlier in the week. It was unclear how long that debate and amendment process would last, but fast-track backers were hoping to get it passed by June.
TPA faces an uncertain future in the House, where nearly all Democrats are opposed, as well as a strong contingent of Republicans.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.