Senate approves trade enforcement measure, clearing way for fast-track

Senate approves trade enforcement measure, clearing way for fast-track

The Senate took an initial step toward picking up President Obama’s trade agenda on Thursday by approving a controversial customs bill that includes language cracking down on currency manipulation by trading partners.

The legislation was easily approved in a 78-20 vote. Under rules adopted for the vote, 60 votes were needed for the measure to pass.

GOP presidential hopefuls Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzUnder pressure, Dems hold back Gorsuch support Paul: Pence should oversee Senate ObamaCare repeal votes Senators introduce new Iran sanctions MORE (Texas) and Marco RubioMarco RubioSenators introduce new Iran sanctions Senate intel panel has not seen Nunes surveillance documents: lawmakers With no emerging leaders, no clear message, Democrats flounder MORE (Fla.) voted no, while Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulPaul: Pence should oversee Senate ObamaCare repeal votes Healthcare fight pits Trump against Club for Growth GOP rep: Trump could be 'one-term president' if healthcare bill passes MORE (Ky.) voted yes. So did Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamUnder pressure, Dems hold back Gorsuch support A real national security budget would fully fund State Department Gorsuch rewrites playbook for confirmation hearings MORE (S.C.), who is considering a 2016 run.

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Democrats had demanded a vote on the bill in exchange for supporting a later vote that would allow the Senate to begin debate on fast-track trade legislation, a top legislative priority for Obama. That vote is scheduled for 2 p.m.

Supporters of the currency manipulation language frame the customs bill as a trade enforcement measure, and the vote gives some cover for Democrats who want to back fast-track.

It’s unlikely the customs bill will be picked up by the House. 

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerGOP rushes to vote without knowing full impact of healthcare plan Dem senator to reintroduce ‘buy American’ legislation GOP senators offer bill to require spending cuts with debt-limit hikes MORE (R-Ohio) on Thursday called efforts by Congress to legislate foreign currencies "laughable." 

The Obama administration also doesn’t support the measure. It warned ahead of the vote on Thursday that the currency provisions “raise highly problematic questions” about if the legislation would violate current international trade agreements, though it stopped short of a veto threat.

Despite White House concerns, Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerThe Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee With no emerging leaders, no clear message, Democrats flounder Gorsuch hearings: A referendum on Originalism and corporate power MORE (D-N.Y.)  said he's “hopeful” the bill will make it to Obama's desk. 

The fast-track legislation would allow Obama to send a trade pact he is negotiating with Asian and Latin American countries to Congress for an up-or-down vote. Congress would not be able to amend the legislation under fast-track.

Unions and other liberal groups have launched a heavy lobbying and public relations campaign to defeat it. Earlier in the week, Senate Democrats voted against moving to the fast-track bill, demanding that the customs legislation be added to the package.

After a wave of headlines highlighting the fight between Obama and Democrats, a deal was reached on Wednesday in which the customs bill was given a separate vote.

Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownThe Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Senators war over Wall Street during hearing for Trump's SEC pick Sanders to oppose Gorsuch's nomination MORE (D-Ohio), one of fast-track’s fiercest opponents, argued that in adopting the customs bill the Senate was acting as an “empathetic voice” on trade.

“The simple message: We cannot have trade promotion without trade enforcement,” he said. “We shouldn't be passing agreements while doing nothing, which the Senate tried to do on Tuesday.”

The bill increases the likelihood that penalties could be imposed on trading partners who engage in currency manipulation, which can lower the value of products and make them more competitive as exports.

Republicans were under pressure to oppose the customs bill.

The Club for Growth, a conservative outside group, said ahead of the vote that it would include the customs vote as part of its congressional scorecard. 

“Our largest objection to this bill is the currency language that was added during the committee markup conducted earlier this year,” the group said. “This new language would designate currency manipulation as a prohibited export subsidy, and thus, allow the government to take remedial action against the foreign country in question.”

Senators also voted 97-1 to pass a non-controversial package package of trade preferences for sub-Saharan Africa. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) was the only no vote. 

This story was updated at 1:37 p.m.