Mitch McConnell is calling Harry Reid’s bluff.
With his move to tee up a critical trade vote for Tuesday, the Senate majority leader challenged Reid (D-Nev.) to make good on his threat to block movement on trade until the Senate determines a strategy for surveillance legislation and highway funding.
[Reposted from Politico | Sueng Min Kim and Burgess Everett | May 7, 2015]
Reid’s opposition, along with his lieutenants in leadership, is a major roadblock for the trade measure because at least six Senate Democrats would be needed to advance the bill, and top GOP senators are counting on some defections from their own ranks. Republicans say Democrats need to cough up at least a dozen votes on Tuesday.
But on Thursday, most of the expected swing Democratic votes wouldn’t say which way they were leaning, despite heavy lobbying from President Barack Obama, who views the trade pact as a legacy-defining issue.
Another hurdle is Democrats’ push to get assurances that the majority will take up the entire package of trade bills from the Senate Finance Committee — not just the controversial “fast-track” legislation that would give President Obama broader authority to negotiate trade deals. As of Thursday afternoon, no such assurances have been given.
The showdown comes as Obama cranks up the pressure to secure Democratic votes on trade legislation that will face a number of close votes in both chambers on Capitol Hill. Obama himself has stepped up his personal outreach to key lawmakers who could ultimately hand him the trade victory, inviting a half-dozen Senate Democrats to the White House on Wednesday to try and persuade wavering members.
At the White House confab, Obama and the senators skirted the issue of Reid’s brinkmanship. But Obama nevertheless had a tough message for his own party: If Democrats rebuff the trade package, “you will undermine me and my ability to achieve real progress,” Obama said to the assembled senators, according to one person who attended.
“It was a good, lengthy discussion and a number of different aspects came out,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who met with Obama and has yet to declare her stance on fast-track. “I saw things that I didn’t see before.”
Obama’s pitch was forceful, attendees said. He told senators that without this trade deal, China will continue to expand its international reach and lower labor standards that could otherwise be improved with passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership — a sweeping 12-country trade deal that could cover 40 percent of the world’s economic output.
He said this is not a sequel to the North American Free Trade Agreement — the 1993 trade pact that liberal Democrats blame for shedding U.S. jobs — and that new trade deals will benefit American workers. And Obama leaned heavily on the amount of work invested in this deal, not just by the United States, but allies in Korea, Japan, Australia and across the Pacific Rim.
After the private meeting, which the White House would not confirm, Senate Democrats wouldn’t say whether Obama moved them to support next week’s critical floor vote. But they said there’s little else Obama can do at this point to move them.
“He’s reaching out to Democrats and he’s very constructive. I mean he and I have been working together on this for months,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee. “The way I’d characterize it: He’s all in.”
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said he raised the issue of investor-state dispute settlements — an obscure provision in the broader trans-Pacific deal that governs how multinational corporations can sue governments — as well questions involving relations with China.
“I tell everybody the same thing: I’m pro-trade, but it’s got to be under the right conditions and I want to make sure that that’s the case,” Kaine said Thursday. “But the president was very personally engaged in trying to answer my questions and answer the questions of others who were there.”
While Obama was engaging Democrats Kaine, Feinstein, Wyden, Patty Murray of Washington, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Chris Coons of Delaware at the White House, Republicans were pushing the process forward.
McConnell took steps on Thursday to set up a vote for next Tuesday that would formally open debate on legislation giving Obama so-called fast-track authority, which would allow him to submit trade deals to Congress for straight up-or-down approval, without any amendments.
Though supporters of the trade pact seem confident enough senators will vote to open debate, Reid’s opposition has injected serious uncertainty into the process. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) had declared earlier in the week that he’d vote against Reid but seemed to be coming around to the Democratic leader’s view that McConnell should more fully articulate his intentions on extending transportation and surveillance laws before trying to work on trade.
“I’m all for trade but don’t count me as one of the votes,” Nelson said. “It depends on the sequence of this thing.”
Murray, a member of Senate Democratic leadership, has remained noncommittal on the sequencing issue, although Reid’s other top deputies—Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chuck Schumer of New York—have lined up behind the Nevada Democrat’s strategy.
“Senator Murray is hopeful that Republicans will work with Democrats to get through all of these issues over the coming weeks,” spokesman Eli Zupnick said, referring to surveillance and highway funding.
On Thursday, Wyden pushed other Senate Democrats to hold out for the broader trade package during a closed-door party lunch — urging lawmakers not to vote with Republicans to advance the legislation without an agreement to do all four bills, two Democratic sources said. One person familiar with the meeting said Wyden’s plea was met with applause.
Democrats say they haven’t secured a commitment from McConnell that he will bring up all four trade bills that make up the package that cleared the Finance Committee last month. Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, responded simply that the majority leader hadn’t yet announced a process for dealing with the package of trade bills.
Democrats want the fast-track bill, known as trade promotion authority, linked with Trade Adjustment Assistance for laid-off workers, easing trade with Africa and customs enforcement for the trade bill.
Meanwhile, Republicans continued to shore up support among their right flank to at least begin working on the bill, with even GOP critics such as Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama saying that the legislation needs to be debated and amended. But McConnell’s chief deputy, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, put up a major warning flare on Thursday that Obama needs to keep working until Tuesday’s vote: He said Republicans need 15 Democrats to vote with them, far above earlier estimates that Obama and Republicans need about 10 Democrats to overcome any opposition from the right.
“We’re not unanimously on our side in support of it so this is a priority for the president,” Cornyn said. “And so that comes with an obligation for him to work on members of his own party to produce the votes.”
Durbin, Cornyn’s Democratic counterpart, said Cornyn’s estimate was high. But he added that Democrats will need more assurances from Republicans to “signal that this is the complete package” of bills Democrats are seeking. But Cornyn said as he views it, only legislation dealing with trade adjustment assistance, in addition to the fast-track bill, is on the table.
The other bills, he said, “weren’t part of the deal.”
Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Wyden and other pro-trade lawmakers huddled on the floor with top GOP policy aides during the last votes of the week to plot out the many different ways forward on the bill. No final decision has been made, according to Senate sources.
Hatch said he spoke to the president last month about the path forward. He said there’s little else Obama can do at this point other than continue the phone and in-person diplomacy — and work against Reid. The minority leader has made clear his anti-TPA position to Democrats in private meetings but told them that ultimately, the vote on Tuesday is their call, sources said.
Obama is “appreciative of Republicans that are carrying the load here, who couldn’t do it without courageous Democrats,” Hatch said. Of the bill’s dozen or so potential Democratic supporters, he said: “I won’t say they’re embarrassed by what’s going on. But they can’t be very happy.”