The U.S. Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday approved the so-called fast-track trade legislation, a key step to move forward President Barack Obama's ambitious trade agenda.
The fast-track legislation, formally known as trade promotion authority (TPA), empowers the president to negotiate trade deals and then present them to Congress for up-or-down votes, with no amendments allowed.
It would give U.S. trading partners the confidence they need to put their best offers on the table, according to lawmakers and trade analysts. Without such authority, Obama's hopes to enact trade deals before he leaves office would be doomed.
The Senate Finance Committee approved the legislation with 20 to 6 votes, sending the bill to the Senate floor, where it will face tough test in the coming weeks.
The legislation comes as the Obama administration steps up efforts to push for two ambitious trade deals -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks with 11 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations with the European Union.
While Obama has made conclusion of the TPP negotiations as one of top priorities of his second-term's economic policy, liberal Democrats and activists from labor unions have vowed to block the president's trade agenda, arguing these trade deals have hurt U.S. workers and increased income inequality.
In an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday, Obama strongly pushed back against critics within his own party, such as the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, an opponent of the TPP trade deal. "I love Elizabeth. We're allies on a whole host of issues. But she's wrong on this," he said.
"I would not be doing this trade deal if I did not think it was good for the middle class," Obama argued. "When you hear folks make a lot of suggestions about how bad this trade deal is, when you dig into the facts, they are wrong."
But Warren on Wednesday fired back at the president, calling on Obama to make details of the TPP negotiations public.
"When giant corporations get to see the details and the American people don't, we all lose. Let's level the playing field: No vote on fast-tracking trade until the public can read the TPP deal," Warren said in a statement on her website.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid also told reporters on Tuesday that he will not support the fast-track legislation. "The answer is not only no, but hell no," he said.
The House Ways and Means Committee is set to consider the legislation on Thursday. As a coalition of liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans made efforts to block Obama's trade agenda, it is unclear whether the legislation could eventually get enough votes for passage in both houses of Congress.