The centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s economic agenda faces a cliffhanger vote in the Senate on Tuesday, as Democratic leaders move to block his trade bill — leaving one powerful Oregon Democrat who may hold the key to the outcome squeezed between his party leaders and the White House.
[Reposted from Politico | Burgess Everett and Manu Raju | May 11, 2015]
Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking member on the Finance Committee, co-authored the fast-track trade measure up for a vote Tuesday that would pave the way for the largest trade accord in history. Republicans, who spent months negotiating a broader trade deal with Wyden, are imploring him to side with Obama, hoping he will persuade enough Democrats to break a filibuster Tuesday.
But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his top lieutenants are eager to block the measure as a way to increase their negotiating leverage over the trade deal and expiring transportation and surveillance laws. They expect Wyden to join them.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Finance Committee, who brokered the deal with Wyden, said the Oregon Democrat must vote yes Tuesday if he’s going to abide by the agreement they reached last month.
“Let’s hope that he remembers what he did and goes back to what he promised to do,” Hatch said, referring to an April discussion where the two agreed to move the fast-track trade bill and a Democratic-backed Trade Adjustment Assistance plan on “parallel” tracks. “Sen. Wyden has always been straight up on things — until now. And it worries me, because you’re only as good as your word around here.”
But sources said Wyden had made it clear in a closed-door Democratic meeting last Thursday that he would not vote to advance the Tuesday procedural motion unless Republicans promise they would also move forward with two other trade measures: a customs enforcement bill and the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Otherwise, he would vote no.
“There was no ambiguity about this,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said Monday.
Wyden and other on-the-fence Democrats were scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House on Monday, but since the Oregon Democrat couldn’t make it back to Washington in time, the meeting was scrapped, according to people with knowledge of the meeting.
The lobbying over Wyden’s vote reflects how the trade fight has quickly emerged as the biggest battle between Obama and his party since he took office more than six years ago. On one side, pro-trade Democrats are eager to join with Republicans in a rare display of bipartisanship in a gridlocked Washington. But they are facing stiff resistance from progressive hard-liners eager to scuttle the fast-track bill, which would pave the way for the sweeping 12-nation agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership that liberals worry could eliminate American jobs.
Wyden represents a state at the center of the battle over trade. Last week, Obama went to the headquarters of Nike in Oregon, where he hailed international trade as a way to boost American exports — only to be greeted by furious protesters. Wyden, too, has been chided back at home for his trade deal-making back in Washington.
That’s because in April, Wyden and Hatch agreed to move the fast-track bill and the trade assistance bill that helps support U.S. workers displaced by lowered trade barriers. The hard-fought compromise was intended to bring Democratic votes for the controversial fast-track legislation as a cost of Republicans swallowing a TAA proposal they revile. The deal seemingly set the two bills on a path through the Senate and on to the rancorous House, with Hatch agreeing to separately see that the African trade measure and the customs bill become law.
But on the Senate floor last week, Hatch was upset to hear that Wyden was supporting his leadership’s move to ask for more concessions before voting on the fast-track bill. In addition to guarantees on the package of four trade bills, Democratic leaders say Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) must explain how Congress will enact a new transportation law and reauthorize the expiring PATRIOT Act this month before Democrats will move forward with the trade bill.
Hatch, Wyden, pro-trade lawmakers and senior staffers huddled on the floor for several minutes, then continued hashing out their differences off the floor for even longer.
Less than 24 hours before the first big trade vote, there was still no resolution to the impasse, and Hatch was plainly worried that Wyden has abandoned their hard-fought deal.
“We know that’s the price of doing business. We lumped them together deliberately in the Senate so we’d have enough votes to get both through. And then they pull this switcheroo,” Hatch fumed at Democrats. “When you make a final agreement, I always live up to it. I expect others to live up to it to. Unfortunately, that may not be the case here.”
Wyden’s vote is being watched closely by both Democrats and Republicans as the pivotal yes or no that will determine whether work on the trade bill can begin now or must wait until June.
“Sen. Wyden wants a guarantee from Republican leadership that all four bills will become law,” a Wyden aide said.
But up until Monday afternoon, Wyden had received no assurance from McConnell that all four pieces of trade legislation will become law, the aide said. Democrats believe that the only opportunity to pass the customs legislation and its labor provisions along with a bill intended to stoke trade with Africa is on fast track, also called trade promotion authority. If TPA leaves the Senate without the Africa trade bill and customs enforcement, Democrats believe McConnell will never put them up for a vote.
If Wyden votes no, he may take enough pro-trade Democrats with him to sink Tuesday’s vote. That possibility has boosted the anti-trade faction of the Democratic Party, which is now predicting that without McConnell’s intervention the vote on Tuesday will fail.
“My expectation is that there will be at least 41 people saying that all four bills should go together,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), an outspoken opponent of TPA and the trade deals it would help seal. “It would be a tragedy if TPA gets to the president’s desk with no help for workers and with no enforcement mechanisms. And that’s what Sen. McConnell apparently wants to do.”
In a rare Monday floor speech, McConnell pushed back at the idea of mapping out assurances for Democrats. If they support the trade effort, they should vote to begin debating the fast-track trade bill, the GOP leader argued.
“Some talk about preventing the Senate from even debating the bill. I would tell you … that would be a big mistake,” McConnell said. “We’ll have an amendment process on the floor that will allow members the opportunity to advance their priorities. … This bill is indeed worthy of debate.”
McConnell’s chief deputy, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, said the only way for Democrats to get votes on all four of their preferred bills is to open debate. The guarantee from GOP leaders that Wyden wants does not appear to be forthcoming.
“They want to try and change the package as we get to the floor. There’s a way to amend bills with an open amendment process,” Cornyn said. “Blocking on the front end is counterproductive.”
The White House is eager to overcome Democratic objections and move quickly to pass the trade bill. Officials privately made clear they are not particularly enamored with Reid for throwing down a separate marker to block the trade bills without McConnell articulating a plan on how to extend expiring highway and surveillance laws.
The president and his aides have carefully avoided getting into how the Senate processes the TPA bill that’s crucial for Obama’s ability to seal trade pacts with Pacific Rim countries, hoping instead to get the bill out of the Senate and on to the House, where it faces even more unified opposition than in the Senate.
If the bill fails Tuesday, the Senate would likely reconsider it next month, and it would stand a serious chance of passing the chamber. But a failed vote would reverberate throughout Washington and could undermine the United States at a key time in the negotiations over TPP.
“It could kill the bill. It’d be terrible,” Hatch said.
Edward-Isaac Dovere and Adam Behsudi contributed to this report.