Senate votes to start trade debate

Greg Nash

The Senate voted Thursday to advance a motion to begin debate on the core of President Obama’s trade agenda, putting it back on track after a week of deadlock.

In a 65-33 vote, the Senate agreed to proceed to a package that would empower Obama to negotiate future trade deals with minimal interference from Congress and assist U.S. workers displaced by foreign competition.

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“Today’s vote moves us closer to achieving a positive outcome for the people we represent,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcConnell: Trump needs to act like a 'serious candidate' Overnight Finance: Wall Street awaits Brexit result | Clinton touts biz support | New threat to Puerto Rico bill? | Dodd, Frank hit back The Trail 2016: Berning embers MORE (R-Ky.). “And I look forward to continued positive engagement from both the president and members of both parties as we move forward on these bills.”

Thirteen Democrats have voted in favor of moving to the bill so far: Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Tom Carper (Del.), Chris Coons (Del.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Tim Kaine (Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Jeanne Shaheem (N.H.), Mark Warner (Va.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.).

The chamber is expected to vote on amendments to the package Tuesday, a process that could extend into June depending on how many proposals Democrats want to consider on the floor.

McConnell wants to pass it before Memorial Day so it’s not left twisting in the wind during a one-week recess at the end of the month.

His goal is to pass it with a large bipartisan majority to give it maximum political momentum heading to the House, where the opponents of free trade hold more influence.

Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) told reporters Thursday he also wants to send the trade package to the House before the end of the month.

But Democrats say there’s not enough time.

“To get this bill done next week he needs to file cloture on Tuesday,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) voiced skepticism over McConnell’s ambitious timeline.

“I don't know,” he told reporters. “Many of our members have amendments.”

He added that Democrats planned to offer amendments on currency, enforcement and child labor.

If McConnell moves to cut off debate on Tuesday, it would limit votes on amendments and could spark an angry backlash from Democrats.

Democrats blocked McConnell’s first attempt to proceed to the trade package on Tuesday because it did not include a customs and enforcement measure addressing currency manipulation nor a package of trade preferences for Africa.

The Senate passed the customs and Africa trade pieces shortly after noon Thursday as stand-alone bills.

Democrats hope this will put pressure on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to bring both to the House floor, but Boehner dismissed the idea of Congress legislating currency valuation on Thursday as “almost laughable.”

The trade package coming to the Senate floor includes Trade Promotion Authority, known as fast-track, and Trade Adjustment Assistance.

Fast-track authority would grant expedited congressional review to trade deals negotiated by Obama and future presidents. It would protect trade agreements from amendments and guarantee them up-or-down simple-majority votes.

TAA provides funding to retrain and boost the incomes of U.S. workers who lose their jobs or suffer diminished income as a result of foreign competition. It caps total funding for training, employment and case management services at $450 million for years 2015 through 2021.

This story was updated at 2:52 p.m. 

 

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