McConnell forges ahead with trade votes despite Dem holdouts

Francis Rivera
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSunday shows preview: Next steps after Trump upheaval Gun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA McConnell: Trump needs to act like a 'serious candidate' MORE (R-Ky.) is moving forward with votes on President Obama’s trade agenda next week, even though pro-trade Democrats have yet to promise their support.
 
McConnell on Thursday filed motions to advance fast-track authority and a separate package of trade preferences for African nations combined with an extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program that helps workers displaced by foreign competition.
 
The Senate will vote to end debate on fast-track Tuesday and then will vote on final passage of the measure later that day or Wednesday. Immediately afterward, the Senate will vote to end debate on the package of trade preferences and TAA, setting up a final vote on those Wednesday or Thursday.
 
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Pro-trade Senate Democrats have yet to sign off on the plan and are demanding a variety of concessions to sweeten the deal.
 
McConnell needs at least 11 Democratic votes to make up for the expected loss of five Republicans who voted against fast-track last month.
 
But Democrats say it’s going to cost McConnell something extra, because he and Boehner have decoupled fast-track from TAA and cannot provide an ironclad promise that both will reach Obama at the same time.
 
McConnell appeared uninclined Thursday to give Democrats any favors and instead urged them to vote the same as they did last month on fast-track and TAA.
 
“Assuming everyone has a little faith and votes the same way they just did a few weeks ago, we’ll be able to get all of these bills to the president soon,” he said on the floor Thursday evening.
 
Some Democrats want a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank attached to the package of trade preferences and TAA.
 
Others want an expansion of TAA, which now caps funding for worker training at $450 million per year.
 
House and Senate Democrats argue it’s woefully underfunded and have tried to increase it to its 2011 level of $575 million.
 
“All of us would like to see TAA be as robust as possible,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a leader of the group.
 
Additionally, they want a promise that Congress will pass a separate customs and enforcement bill that includes labor and environmental protections. Both chambers have passed versions of the legislation that need to be reconciled in bicameral talks.
 
McConnell promised the customs bill would reach the Senate floor later this summer.
 
“I know there’s a fourth bill too, the customs bill. Given the complex and thorny procedural processes at work here, we will have to turn to that one as soon as we’re able — but we will turn to it. It will go to a conference committee and then return to the Senate floor where it too will be passed and sent to the White House,” he said.
 
Pro-trade Senate Democrats want a guarantee that all four trade bills passed by the Senate in May will reach Obama for a signature.
 
“The pro-trade Democrats want to make sure that all four parts of the package are actually going to happen because there are important values and important priorities in each of them,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), a leader of the group and a co-author of the Senate trade package that passed last month.
 
“There are no deals. We’re continuing to talk,” he added.
 
Wyden said the Democratic holdouts and Republican leaders “are talking about a variety of different approaches.”
 
White House officials have declined to rule out the possibility of Obama signing fast-track while TAA and the other trade legislation are still wending their way through Congress.
 
“I know there’s conversations about the sequencing and what passes and what — all of that stuff. So I'm going to let those conversations continue. But if your question is, does the president want both at his desk, the answer to that is yes,” White House deputy press secretary Eric Shultz told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday.
 
“I would defer to our friends and colleagues in both the House and the Senate for how they’re going to sequence this,” he said.
 
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), one of the swing Democratic votes, says he doesn’t want TAA combined with the trade preferences package, which includes the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
 
“I just have conveyed broadly my concern that AGOA not be unintended collateral damage if the House ultimately doesn’t pass TAA,” he said.
 
In a series of calls this week, McConnell, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the president choreographed an intricate dance to save the trade legislation after House Democrats defeated TAA last week.
 
GOP leaders are asking pro-trade Senate Democrats to make a leap of faith by voting to send fast-track to Obama, calculating that House Democrats will reconsider their opposition to TAA once they realize they can’t stop Obama from signing trade promotion authority into law.
 
“Leader McConnell has been regularly in touch with the White House and some of his Democratic colleagues,” said a GOP aide.  
 
But pro-trade Senate Democrats don’t have much faith in Boehner’s ability to deliver after his strategy of splitting up fast-track and TAA faltered last week.
 
Some of them think Obama should pressure Boehner to combine the two trade measures, as the Senate did, and put that on the House floor for a vote. A standalone version of fast-track passed the lower chamber 218-208 Thursday.
 
“It’s my preference we ask the House to solve the problem the House has created,” said Coons.
 
“People want to see if there’s a way to get Boehner to do what he’s supposed to do,” said a Democratic aide.
 
The fate of the Export-Import Bank has emerged as a sticking point in the negotiations.
 
Pro-trade Democrats say they will not be satisfied with a only a promise to vote on the bank’s reauthorization. McConnell promised a group of Democrats he would hold a vote on the bank this month.
 
He allowed them to vote on a procedural motion to table an amendment to the defense authorization bill reauthorizing Ex-Im, but Democrats, who are led on the issue by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), said it fell short of what McConnell pledged.
 
One pro-trade Democrat, who was granted anonymity to discuss the negotiations, said “it’s a question of trust because we feel McConnell didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.”
 
The lawmaker called adding the Ex-Im authorization to TAA “a possibility.”
 
“I’d love to see this as an opportunity to do something at least the charter for the Ex-Im Bank to expire,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a swing Democratic vote.
 
The proposal has met with resistance from GOP leaders.
 
“I think that’s creating a lot of problems. That may be more weight than it can bear,” said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).
 
—Peter Schroeder contributed.