Scores of reporters swarmed Sen. Patty Murray after she cut an eleventh-hour deal to help salvage President Barack Obama’s trade agenda in May.
[Reposted from Politico | Manu Raju and Burgess Everett | June22, 2015]
She could have taken a victory lap. But Murray was eager to escape.
“Alright you guys, that’s all I’m going to say,” she said, repeating the same terse response five straight times before disappearing into a senators-only elevator.
As the Senate barrels toward yet another cliffhanger vote Tuesday on trade, Murray is once again in the cross hairs: She has been targeted by a president who needs every last Democratic vote to push his agenda over the finish line, hails from a trade-dependent state, but still is under pressure from labor unions hoping to stop what they see as a bad deal for American workers.
And once again, she’s saying little about how she’ll come down ahead of the critical procedural votes this week.
“I’m just going to leave it at that at this point,” she repeated last week after giving little hint of her thinking to begin with.
Murray’s low profile underscores just how politically wrenching the trade debate has become for the small group of pro-trade Democrats who hold the key to the president’s economic agenda. They may be the linchpin to burnishing a major piece of Obama’s legacy — and with it, the most far-reaching trade deal in history — but they are firmly in the minority of a party locked in an increasingly divisive debate over its future direction. And they have little interest in being the face of an issue that enrages the left.
“I am incredulous that anybody here in any party would vote for a trade agreement without taking care of workers first,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a fierce opponent of trade deals.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Obama has virtually no margin for error. Of the 14 Senate Democrats who voted last month to advance the plan, he can afford to lose — at most — three. And Murray’s voice carries significant weight: As the lone Democrat in her party’s leadership who previously voted for the trade agenda, how she comes down now could influence other fence-sitting Democrats.
What also could influence her vote: Murray’s fellow Washington state Democratic senator, Maria Cantwell, warned in an interview that she is prepared to block the legislation this week.
“I’m a ‘no’ because I want to get a certainty that we’re going to take care of workers who are laid off,” said Cantwell, who joined Murray in voting to advance the trade package last month after furiously negotiating a last-ditch deal on the floor.
In a sign of how badly Democrats are divided in Washington state: Of the delegation’s six House Democrats, three voted for Trade Promotion Authority; three opposed it.
“We can do better,” said Rep. Denny Heck, a Democrat who voted “no” last week and represents a district that includes Olympia, the state capital.
Murray has supported every trade deal that’s come before her since becoming a senator in 1993, from the North American Free Trade Agreement, immediately after she was sworn in for her first term, to the South Korean accord in 2011. But Murray has not yet said a word on the Senate floor about the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the trade issue since the beginning of May, even as the debate has dominated Congress and despite representing one of the most trade-dependent states in the country.
About 40 percent of the state’s jobs are tied to international trade, according to the Washington Council on International Trade, a group that represents Boeing, Microsoft, the Port of Seattle, the Port of Tacoma and other entities that support open markets. About 30 percent of the goods Washington exported went to the 11 Pacific Rim countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which stands a chance of becoming U.S. law only if the Senate first clears the fast-track trade bill this week.
Murray is being tugged between two poles of her power base. Washington State Labor Council President Jeff Johnson is praising Cantwell’s “courageous” position and urging Murray to join her and “stand tall with us” by blocking the fast-track bill.
But Eric Schinfeld, president of the WCIT pro-trade consortium, noted that “both our senators support TPA” and “are looking for a path to vote yes.”
Behind the scenes, Murray is engaged in back-channel conversations to win enough assurances from the White House and pro-trade forces to vote for the package this week, according to senators. She has repeatedly spoken to the president, as part of group meetings, in one-on-one sessions in the Oval Office and over the phone, as well. Yet she still isn’t ready to express her support to vote to break a Democratic filibuster on Tuesday. While she is viewed as a likely “yes” vote, she did join in an effort by her party last month to initially block the trade debate from occurring.
“I am trying to do what I always do, which is to respect everyone’s point of view and trying to find the best path forward for all of us,” Murray said in a brief interview.
In the latest go-round, Murray is seeking assurances that the fast-track bill —which would allow Congress to approve or reject, but not amend, the Trans-Pacific Partnership — won’t be the last trade bill to land on Obama’s desk. Like other Democrats, she wants to pass an extension of the Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program expiring at the end of September and that aims to aid workers hurt by trade deals with job training and financial assistance. She is seeking assurances that the TAA bill will not only pass the Senate this week, but that Republicans will deliver sufficient votes so it can pass the House, too.
“We’ve always been concerned that people are just going to take one without the other, and we obviously see a lot of paths now where that could still play out,” said Cantwell, who is speaking regularly with Murray on the matter.
To win the support of Senate Democrats, Republicans last month included the worker aid package with the fast-track bill. And — to win the support of Murray, Cantwell and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — Republican leaders added another sweetener: They promised to have a vote on renewing the expiring charter for the Export-Import Bank.
Senate Democrats thought the divisive issue was finally off their plate. But after House Democrats surprisingly blocked the worker aid plan earlier this month in an attempt to derail the entire trade agenda, the Senate was abruptly pulled back into the debate. GOP leaders — with the backing of the White House — decided to split up the Senate proposal and moved the fast-track bill and worker-aid package separately in an attempt to facilitate their passage. Last week, the House barely passed the fast-track bill, 218-208, sending it back to the Senate for a final vote.
Late last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) began the parliamentary process to take up the fast-track bill Tuesday and a separate trade bill that will include the worker-aid package as late as Wednesday. He promised that both of those would land on the president’s desk before July 4.
That’s enough for some pro-trade Democrats.
“I’m going to vote for it and urge my colleagues to do so, as well. At the end of the day, I think we’ll pass TPA, I think the president will sign on it,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). He said it would make “no sense” for House Democrats to vote against TAA again.
But other Democrats are skeptical that the assurances from McConnell and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are enough for the worker aid package to overcome heavy opposition of Republicans in the GOP-led House.
“Ronald Reagan was right: Trust but verify,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democratic opponent of the trade deals.
Murray, 64, is one of the more unassuming senators, rarely engaging at length with reporters, and her reserved approach on trade isn’t atypical. She has a solidly liberal voting record and has been an influential deal-maker on legislation involving the budget, human trafficking and education.
As the No. 4 Senate Democrat and the highest-ranking female senator, Murray is being discussed as a potential Democratic whip next Congress, though the current whip, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, believes he has support to keep the job. Murray has avoided speculation about her ambition within the caucus.
Murray allies say she’s staying quiet on trade because she doesn’t want to alienate progressives and unions, with which she’s had a long and close relationship. She may need their help if she faces a serious threat for reelection next year — as she did in 2010 — though at this point, Murray appears to be a lock to win a fifth term.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, is the lead Democratic negotiator on the issue — and he has faced a barrage of criticism from progressives ahead of his own reelection bid next year.
Another pro-trade Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, said “there’s nervousness” among his Democratic colleagues who back the trade pact about having to take another tough vote.
“But my attitude is: Come on, just put your head down, we gotta get it done,” he said.