Politico: Dems look to start Senate trade war next week

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Senate liberals know they are going to lose the battle over fast-track trade authority. But they’re doing all they can to prolong the fight — perhaps even past the Memorial Day recess into June — in hopes that a long delay will damage the bill’s already difficult prospects in the House.

[Reposted from Politico  |  Burgess Everett  |  May 14, 2015]

A coalition of Senate Democrats who’ve long opposed new trade agreements, led by Sherrod Brown of Ohio, say they are planning to throw up procedural roadblocks and offer amendments that would expand worker protections and undermine GOP support for the fast-track measure. While they can’t win the battle, Brown and his allies hope their resistance will stoke popular sentiment against the bill and encourage Democrats to vote against it in the House, where Republican leaders warn they still need about 20 more votes for approval.

“The handwriting’s on the wall,” Brown said of the prospects of beating the bill in the Senate. But, he said: “There’s real opportunity in the House to defeat it.”

“We’re going to work as hard as we can to defeat this legislation,” added Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in an interview Thursday. “Time is on our side. The longer we keep it on the floor, the more the American people understand what a disastrous agreement this is, the better it is for us.”

Senate rules will work in their favor, given that any single member can drag out debate for days by objecting to time and amendment agreements. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s promise to have an open amendment process will also help liberals, as they mull offering amendments on currency manipulation and additional worker protections that could be tough for vulnerable Republicans to oppose. And lawmakers need to deal with the expiring PATRIOT Act next week, along with transportation law, putting the squeeze on the Senate’s tight schedule.

The White House and Senate Republicans are pressing the pace to keep momentum on their side after they broke a filibuster this week. Fast-track Trade Promotion Authority is the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s economic agenda, and it is necessary if he wants to speed a huge trade pact with 12 Pacific Rim nations through Congress without amendment.

Republicans even tried to schedule a rare Friday Senate session to begin debating amendments, an effort that proved unsuccessful. The GOP is already blaming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for delaying votes and debate on the bill.

Meanwhile, liberal Democrats huddled this week with Brown to plot the measure’s defeat and are continuing to formulate a plan of attack. They remain tight-lipped about what exactly they will do to jam up McConnell’s priorities, but they’ve promised to make it an ugly skirmish.

“The procedural tools will come out,” warned Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

The time crunch is going to work against McConnell. Dealing with the high-stakes trade measure and a controversial extension of surveillance programs at the same time is going to be difficult, if not impossible. When push comes to shove, Republicans may be forced to punt trade until after the recess to deal with the more pressing PATRIOT Act.

“Sen. McConnell has written more checks than he can cash on the schedule,” said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid. “Something’s gotta give, it’s just not clear what.”

McConnell (R-Ky.) shrugged off the pessimism. “We will finish it next week,” he said of TPA on Thursday afternoon.

“We’re running out of time,” added McConnell’s whip, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. “My goal is to finish it next week. I’m an optimist.”

But Republicans are already preparing for the worst. Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said in an interview that if he had his way, the Senate would stay in through the recess to finish his bill. That’s highly unlikely given that four senators are already running for president; and the Senate barely works on Fridays anymore.

“Anything beyond next week is obstructionism,” Hatch said of Democrats’ threats to hold up the bill. This week’s filibuster, he added, smacked of a Democratic strategy “so that they can claim that they don’t have enough time to bring up amendments.”

Potentially problematic amendments began piling up as soon as the Senate voted to begin debate on the bill. Brown wants to crank up spending on the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which could appeal to several Rust Belt Republicans looking to assure their constituents that any job losses from new trade bills will be blunted by the TAA program.

“If McConnell wants to keep us in, late nights and all, I’m fine,” Brown said. “I want to make sure we get these amendments out there.”

Republicans already have begrudgingly agreed to move a trade assistance measure along with the fast-track bill, but expanding the TAA protections even further could erode GOP support for the fast-track measure it’s paired with.

Republicans have offered an amendment to strip the bill of the trade-assistance program, which likely would fail if it gets a vote but serves as a direct challenge to Brown.

“If they want to defeat it, they might be able to defeat it with some amendments that just make it improbable to use,” Hatch said of fast-track.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) wants the Senate to attach a provision that would require that religious liberty be factored into any new trade deals, injecting a social issues debate into an already fraught battle over economics and prosperity. He and Brown will get votes on their proposals on Monday evening.

And Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have offered amendments aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. Cruz says he won’t support anything that doesn’t include his amendment.

“We should put it in writing and make it binding law. I am a strong supporter of free trade, but I cannot support legislation that would allow the president to once again circumvent Congress to enact his own immigration laws,” Cruz said.

Democrats say that even if McConnell moves to block or limit the amendment jockeying early next week, their liberal members are likely to object to swift consideration of the fast-track bill. That could drag out the bill until the end of the week, which would then crash into the McConnell’s efforts to extend portions of the PATRIOT Act.

Republicans privately complained that Reid was playing both sides by working to delay the bill and block amendments, only to then complain about not getting votes on Democratic amendments.

Liberals and libertarians are vowing to fight McConnell’s effort to offer a clean extension of current surveillance law, including the bulk data-collection program, meaning the Senate may have to devote significant time to that, too.

In the middle of it all is Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Hatch’s primary dance partner on trade issues. And though he said in an interview he’s doing everything he can to move the trade bill before the recess, he’s also vowed to filibuster any effort to extend the PATRIOT Act without reforms to bulk data collection.

“I’m going to pull out all the stops to do both,” Wyden said.

Adam Behsudi contributed to this report.

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