The Senate on Tuesday voted to advance President Obama’s trade agenda, approving a measure to end debate on fast-track authority.
[Reposted from The Hill | Alexander Bolton | June 23, 2015]
The 60-37 motion sets up a vote on final passage on Wednesday. If the Senate approves fast-track or trade promotion authority (TPA), it would then be sent to Obama’s desk to become law.
Fast-track authority would allow Obama to send trade deals to Congress for up-or-down votes. The White House wants the authority to conclude negotiations on a sweeping trans-Pacific trade deal.
Thirteen Democrats backed fast-track in Tuesday’s vote, handing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a major legislative victory. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) voted against the procedural motion.
The Democrats cast "yes" votes even though the trade package did not include a workers assistance program for people displaced by increased trade. The Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program was a part of the last fast-track package approved by the Senate in May, but became a key part of opposition to the package among Democrats in the House.
To move fast-track forward, the White House and GOP leaders in both chambers decided to break TAA away from fast-track and to try to approve both in separate votes.
After the Senate votes Wednesday on final passage for fast-track, it will take a procedural vote on a package that includes TAA and trade preferences for African countries known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).
McConnell has promised both bills will reach Obama’s desk by the end of the week.
“If we all keep working together and trusting each other, then by the end of the week the President will have TPA, TAA and AGOA and Preferences on his desk,” he said on the floor.
The House has already passed fast-track but it must still vote on the package including TAA, which faces opposition from conservatives.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) reiterated on Tuesday his pledge to vote again on TAA as soon as it clears the upper chamber.
“The House will consider TAA once it passes the Senate as part of a new trade preferences bill. And we are ready to go to conference on the customs bill. Our goal is to get TPA and TAA to the president's desk this week and deliver this win for the American people,” he said in a statement.
The Senate vote to end a filibuster against fast-track appeared in doubt until the final moment as a group of pro-trade Democrats balked at McConnell’s decision to split it off from TAA, a move made necessary to circumvent opposition in the House.
Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Chris Coons (Del.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Patty Murray (Wash.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) refused to say publicly how they would vote.
McConnell’s margin for error shrank further when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is running for president, announced he would vote to block the bill, declaring in a Breitbart.com op-ed that it had “become enmeshed in corrupt Washington backroom dealmaking.”
Other Republican White House hopefuls, including Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, oppose fast-track.
Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the senior Democrat on the Finance Committee, held talks with other pro-trade Democrats late into the evening Monday to address their concerns.
He delivered an impassioned speech in favor of the bill shortly before the vote, arguing that it would allow the United States to keep pace with China in the competition for Asian markets.
“This is our chance to set a new course. This is our chance to put in place higher standards in global trade on matters like labor rights and environmental protection, shine some real sunlight on trade agreements and ensure that our country writes the rules of the road,” he said.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who co-wrote the trade bill with Wyden, argued the vast majority of global economic growth will take place outside of the United States over the next decade.
“If our workers, farmers, ranchers and service providers are going to be able to compete in these growing markets, we must have open access to these markets and fair trade rules to boot,” he said on the floor.
Opponents led by Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) warned fast-track would cost thousands of American jobs and allow multi-national companies to evade U.S. law.
Brown reproached his colleagues for voting to give Obama fast-track authority while having little idea of the shape of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord that will receive expedited consideration in Congress as a result.
“We’ve gotten the worst of both worlds because we’re voting on TPA and we haven’t been able to see what’s in TPP,” Brown said before the vote.
The AFL-CIO waged a fierce lobbying campaign against fast-track for months.
“It will do nothing to prevent repeating the mistakes of failed trade policies that have contributed to stagnating wages, increasing inequality and the closure of more than 60,000 factories since 2000,” the union wrote in a letter dated Monday.
Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other business leaders applauded the development.
“Today’s vote is an important step towards revitalizing our economy, creating more good American jobs, and reasserting our country’s global economic leadership,” Donohue said in a statement.
Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) missed the vote. McConnell said Corker would have voted "yes" if he had been present, while Brown noted that Lee and Menendez would have voted "no."