Liberal senators imperil Obama trade bill

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The White House and Senate Republicans are scrambling to win enough support for a key procedural vote Tuesday to move forward with President Obama’s trade agenda.

The vote is shaping up to be one of the most dramatic roll calls of this Congress and could be a stinging rebuke of the president by members of his own party. It may also doom a sweeping Pacific trade agreement that is a top priority for the Obama administration.

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Trade bills traditionally pass the Senate with ease and face stiffer winds in the House. But this time around, there are major hurdles in both chambers.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidFree speech is a right, not a political weapon Overnight Tech: FCC eyes cybersecurity role | More trouble for spectrum auction | Google seeks 'conservative outreach' director Cures bill clears first Senate hurdle MORE (Nev.) is trying to block the pending “fast-track” trade bill and has asked his conference to demand that three other measures be included in the legislative package.

The Wall Street Journal reported late last week that Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenThis Week in Cybersecurity: Dems press for information on Russian hacks Senate passes college anti-Semitism bill Overnight Finance: Trump takes victory lap at Carrier plant | House passes 'too big to fail' revamp | Trump econ team takes shape MORE (Ore.), the senior Democrat on the Finance Committee, told colleagues in a lunch meeting that fast-track should be combined with the other bills, including a measure with controversial language cracking down on currency manipulation.

Republicans on Monday accused Wyden of backing out of a deal they assert he made with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin HatchSenate GOP: National museum should include Clarence Thomas Mnuchin's former bank comes under scrutiny Trump’s economic team taking shape MORE (R-Utah) to pair fast-track with Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), but not the two other measures the Democrats are now demanding.

A Wyden staffer disputed The Wall Street Journal story.

The aide said his boss has said since the beginning of the negotiations that all four bills need to make it to the president’s desk. And while he has not insisted on putting them into a single bill, Wyden has asked for a guarantee that they all become law, the aide said. 

But with most Democrats now demanding that all four trade bills — fast-track, TAA, a customs enforcement bill and a package of trade preferences for African countries — move in a single package, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcConnell: Spending bill will include miners' pension fix Could bipartisanship rise with Trump government? Senate names part of Cures bill after Beau Biden MORE (R-Ky.) will have trouble rounding up enough votes. 

It’s unclear if the White House and GOP leaders can get the necessary 60 votes to advance the legislation. Senate aides on both sides of the debate anticipate a close vote.

Florida Sen. Bill NelsonBill NelsonRed-state Dems face tough votes on Trump picks Feds allow GM to delay airbag recalls Florida governor won't serve in Trump administration MORE, one of seven Democrats to vote for fast-track in the Finance Committee last month, said Monday afternoon he would not vote to end debate on the motion to proceed to trade legislation unless all four bills are combined.

He said the Democratic caucus is unified on the question, kicking the ball back into McConnell’s court.

Hatch and other Republicans do not want to tie the customs enforcement bill to fast-track because it includes controversial language penalizing trading partners that engage in currency manipulation.

Democrats say the customs bill includes other important trade enforcement provisions such as language intended to combat child labor.

They say the fourth bill, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, is less important.

McConnell had not told colleagues how he would package the trade bills as of 5 p.m. Monday.

He merely urged senators to allow the debate to proceed and offered them the chance to mold the trade legislation on the floor.

“Some talk about preventing the Senate from even debating the bill. I would tell you, Mr. President, I think that would be a big mistake,” McConnell said, addressing the chamber’s presiding chairman.  

Hatch, walking into a meeting in McConnell’s office Monday, said he expected to move only fast-track and TAA simultaneously. He said the other two bills would move separately.

“The first two, TPA and TAA, will be together and then we’ll call up the other ones later. That’s the best I can do,” he told The Hill.

McConnell showed no signs of conceding to Reid’s demands on Monday and may seize on a failure to begin the trade debate Tuesday as an opportunity to bash Democrats for obstructionism.

The GOP leader has played up his partnership with Obama on the issue in recent days and could argue that Democrats are stubbornly opposing their own president to please liberal interest groups.

Obama has recently lashed out at critics of his trade agenda, most notably Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenCures bill clears first Senate hurdle House GOP to unveil short-term funding bill Tuesday Juan Williams: McConnell won big by blocking Obama MORE (D-Mass.).

McConnell last week praised the president’s handling of the trade debate and revealed over the weekend that he received a handwritten note from Obama thanking him for supporting Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Reid disputed McConnell’s comments on the floor Monday by arguing that Democrats have helped Republicans pass several bills this year.

“We have been able to accomplish a few things during this work period and the reason that we have been able to is that we, the minority, have cooperated,” he said.

With Reid pressing his colleagues to hold ranks, Republican leaders say it’s now up to Obama to persuade enough Democrats to cross the aisle to get the debate started Tuesday and give the trade legislation a chance of passing before Memorial Day.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that Obama’s conversations with lawmakers, mostly with Democrats but also with some Republicans, have “yielded some votes.”

He said the White House would continue to make its case to members of Congress “right up until the vote, and we’re not going to take any of those votes for granted.” 

Earnest said the administration does not believe currency manipulation language should be attached to the trade package, but he stopped short of issuing a veto threat in response to the possibility.

“What we have indicated is that we believe that there’s a better way for us to resolve concerns related to currency,” he said. “The concern that we have about some of the approaches that are currently being discussed on Capitol Hill is that they could be used to effectively undermine the independence of the Federal Reserve.”

Jordan Fabian and Vicki Needham contributed.

Read more from The Hill:

Senate deals stinging defeat to Obama trade agenda