Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday vowed to pass fast-track trade legislation before the Memorial Day recess, brushing aside calls for a prolonged floor debate on amendments.
[Reposted from The Hill | Vicki Needham and Jordain Carney | May 18, 2015]
“I want to be very clear … the Senate will finish its work on trade this week, and we will remain in session as long as it takes to do so,” the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor.
McConnell is facing a severe time crunch, with the holiday recess coming ahead of the June 1 deadline for reauthorizing highway funding and Patriot Act provisions that are used by the National Security Agency to collect phone records.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Monday said he would filibuster legislation that would extend portions of the Patriot Act for two months, virtually guaranteeing that the fight over the legislation will eat up hours of valuable floor time.
The legislative traffic jam has prompted some Democrats to call for delaying the trade legislation until June — an outcome that would delight liberal groups that are working to defeat it.
But McConnell remains adamant that the legislation granting fast-track negotiating powers to President Obama — the so-called trade promotion authority (TPA) — will not be sidelined.
“The more our colleagues across the aisle try to throw sand in the gears this week, the less opportunities members will have for amendments,” McConnell said.
He said Democrats cut significantly into what was already limited debate time by filibustering the trade bill last week.
“It cost the Senate over a week in lost time,” McConnell said.
Ending debate on the trade bill would block dozens of amendments. Nearly 90 of them had been filed as of Monday afternoon, with proposals coming from both sides of the aisle.
One amendment would extend the life of the Export-Import Bank. If adopted, that provision could become a poison pill for the fast-track legislation in the House.
Another amendment would eliminate the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which is a priority for Democrats.
Yet it’s a currency manipulation amendment from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that is taking the lion’s share of the attention.
Portman, a former U.S. Trade Representative who is facing a tough reelection race, argues that steel and auto companies in his state have suffered at the hand of countries that deliberately lower the value of their currency to make their products cheaper than American offerings.
He and Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan are proposing an amendment that would require that any future trade deals include enforceable currency provisions. The plan would create a framework, based on International Monetary Fund rules, to determine which countries are lowering the value of their currency to gain a trading advantage.
The Obama administration is firmly against such a provision, arguing it would doom the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement he is trying to complete.
Top Republicans, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) have sided with the administration, arguing that adding the currency language would damage economic growth over the long term.
Another fight is brewing over the TAA program, which is designed to helps workers who lose their jobs because of trade.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is working to strip the TAA measure from the legislation over the vocal objections of Democrats.
Hatch has repeatedly said that, even though he dislikes the worker program, it is understood that the TAA and the fast-track bill must move in tandem.
“I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not TAA’s biggest fan,” Hatch said on Monday. “But from the outset of this process, it was clear to us on the Republican side that we would have to swallow hard and allow TAA to pass in order to get TPA across the finish line.”
Hatch and GOP leaders hope to get the bill through the Senate without any changes in order to smooth what is expected to be a bumpy road in the House, where liberal Democrats are overwhelmingly against the legislation.
Meanwhile, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) has proposed using the trade legislation to extend the Export-Import Bank, which is a top priority for her state’s top employer, Boeing.
If the Senate adopts the Ex-Im amendment, it could doom the legislation in the House, where conservative opposition to the bank is running high. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has said he supports letting the bank’s charter expire at the end of June.
Senate Republicans have a few paths to block Cantwell’s amendment, including deeming it as nongermane or subjecting it to a higher vote threshold.
If all that weren’t enough for McConnell to worry about, presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz is pushing to bring immigration into the trade fight.
The Texas Republican has an amendment that would ensure nothing in TPA changes immigration law, while also blocking any trade agreements that change immigration laws from being fast-tracked through Congress.
Trade deals containing immigration provisions could be amended and would be subject to Senate filibusters.
“Since the Obama administration has emphatically argued that TPA will not affect immigration, it should support this amendment, which makes that promise explicit,” Cruz said.