President Clinton’s controversial fast-track trade legislation easily won its first test vote in the Senate on Tuesday, brightening prospects for passage in both houses of Congress later this week.
In a clear show of support for the measure, the Senate voted 69-31 to block any delay in taking up the legislation - nine votes more than were needed to choke off a threatened filibuster by opponents.
Congressional strategists said the strong showing all but guarantees the Senate will pass the bill, which would enhance Clinton’s ability to negotiate trade pacts with other nations. Final balloting in the Senate is expected by this weekend, following a second procedural vote Thursday.
Clinton hailed the vote as a breakthrough, saying it reflects “a bipartisan coalition for American leadership” that would help sustain America’s economic boom.
Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, D-Texas, told reporters that support in the House for the fast-track legislation has “improved” among both Democrats and Republicans, thanks in part to heavy presidential lobbying.
At the same time, both sides conceded that Clinton is unlikely to persuade many more House Democrats to support the bill and would have to rely on Republicans to fill the gap.
Top administration officials turned to negotiating with Republicans in an effort to make enough concessions on pet GOP issues in other pending bills to attract more Republican support for the fast-track trade legislation.
Although both sides remained closed-mouthed about specifics, aides said the issues ranged from limits on the use of foreign aid money to help finance abortions abroad to whether to use sampling in the 2000 census.
“So many Republicans have submitted demands that we don’t know how to cope with them all,” one insider lamented.
“We’re trying to do what we can, but we’re not going to be able to do them all.”
The fast-track bill authorizes the president to begin new trade-liberalization talks. It would enable Congress to reject any new trade pact - but only on an up-or-down vote without altering specific provisions.
Although all presidents since Gerald R. Ford have operated under such authority, unions and environmentalists have launched a major campaign to defeat the bill, saying it would hurt U.S. jobs and environmental goals.
In Tuesday’s test vote in the Senate, 43 Republicans and 26 Democrats voted with the majority to go ahead with the fast-track bill, while 12 Republicans and 19 Democrats opposed the move.
The vote was important because backers of the legislation had hoped that a visible show of support in the Senate might help provide the political cover for more Democrats in the House to vote for the bill.
The Senate is scheduled to continue debating the fast-track bill today, taking a second test vote sometime Thursday.
A group of opponents led by Sen. Bryan Dorgan, D-N.D., vowed to try to load the bill with a spate of amendments in an effort to defeat it, but congressional strategists expressed doubt they would succeed.
xxxx HOW THEY VOTED On this vote, a “yes” vote was a vote to advance the bill and a “no” vote was a vote to block it. All voting “yes”: Patty Murray, D- Wash.; Slade Gorton, RWash.; Larry Craig, R-Idaho; Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho.