WASHINGTON U.S. Senate Democrats banded together on Tuesday to reject a Republican amendment that would give President Barack Obama "trade promotion authority" to negotiate new market-opening agreements.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell offered the measure because he said it was vital for U.S. job creation.
"Without trade promotion authority, there will be no other trade agreements. We all know that," McConnell said.
"And that's why I've been a strong advocate for granting this president the same trade promotion authority that every other president has enjoyed since 1974."
The measure failed on a vote of 55-45.
Obama has not asked for trade promotion authority, which expired in 2007 and also is known as "fast track" because it puts trade pacts on a quick path to congressional approval.
An administration official said Obama will seek the authority "at an appropriate time," but pursuing the measure now would slow down action on South Korea, Colombia and Panama trade deals expected to go to Congress in coming weeks.
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee subcommittee on trade, echoed that concern.
He said lawmakers needed more time to craft new negotiating objectives for the White House, rather than just renew the expired law through 2013 as McConnell proposed.
"There is a lot of interest on our side of the aisle in working on this issue, but I would urge colleagues to resist the McConnell amendment," Wyden said.
However, many Democrats are wary of any new trade deals whether Obama or a Republican is in the White House.
Senators have been debating whether to renew two expired trade programs in what business groups hope is a prelude to action on the South Korea, Panama and Colombia pacts.
One, the Generalized System of Preferences, waives duties on thousands of goods from developing countries. The other, Trade Adjustment Assistance, provides income and retraining assistance for workers who have lost their jobs because of foreign competition.
McConnell criticized Obama for insisting Trade Adjustment Assistance be approved before submitting the trade deals.
"Still, I and others have agreed to allow it so we can finally move ahead on these vital trade deals," he said. "And it's my expectation ... that the president will stop dragging his feet and soon submit all three of them for a quick approval."
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Christopher Wilson)