Fast-track votes will loom large in 2016 Senate races
© Greg Nash

Republicans and Democrats in danger of losing their Senate seats in 2016 cast tough votes on Thursday to move forward on fast-track trade legislation. They will be hoping their decisions don’t come back to haunt their reelection efforts.

Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump Lawmakers call for investigation into program meant to help student loan borrowers with disabilities Senators sound alarm on dangers of ransomware attacks after briefing MORE (R-Ohio), the former U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush, cast the most dramatic vote of day, ultimately joining the vast majority of Republicans in favor of advancing the legislation. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Portman has clashed with some Republicans on the issue in recent weeks, floating a currency manipulation amendment that many in the party believed would doom the bill.

On Thursday, Portman submitted the final vote of the day in favor of moving forward.

The Ohioan faces a difficult reelection bid in 2016. He’s likely to face the state’s former Gov. Ted Strickland (D) in the general election, and the Democrat has vowed to make trade an issue in the campaign.

Other vulnerable Republicans up for reelection in swing states joined Portman in voting to move forward, including Sens. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonDemocrats seek leverage for trial Overnight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons Senate panel advances Turkey sanctions bill despite Trump objections MORE (Wis.) and Mark KirkMark Steven KirkWhy Republicans are afraid to call a key witness in the impeachment inquiry Ex-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR Bottom Line MORE (Ill.), who many view as the two most vulnerable GOP senators heading into 2016. Sens. Pat Toomey (Pa.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Richard Burr (N.C.) also toed the party line.

All of those senators can expect to see attacks from their Democratic opponents for those votes next year.

Republicans will be on defense heading into 2016 as they seek to protect their newly-won majority in the Senate. The GOP will be defending 24 seats, compared with only 10 for Democrats. Many members up for reelection hail from swing states that lean Democratic in presidential years.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons Rand Paul: 'We need to re-examine' US-Saudi relationship after Florida shooting Senate panel advances Turkey sanctions bill despite Trump objections MORE, a presidential candidate, was one of only five Republicans to vote against moving forward on the bill. It’s another instance of the Kentucky Republican bucking party leadership.

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Inspector general testifies on FBI failures: Five takeaways Conservatives rip FBI over IG report: 'scathing indictment' MORE (Utah) also went against the majority in his party, potentially stoking the ire of some Republicans in the state who would like to see him challenged in the primaries.

In a statement, Lee explained his vote in the context of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which was attached to the bill.

"TAA was originally meant to help American manufacturing workers whose jobs were lost directly due to free trade agreements," Lee said. "However, Congress has allowed the program to expand into other sectors and loosened its eligibility requirements, resulting in a wasteful program spending billions of dollars that does not lead to increased employment or higher wages for displaced workers."

Of the 12 Democrats that backed President Obama and voted for cloture, only three are up for reelection.

Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Patty Murray (Wash.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) voted to move forward. Only Bennet is considered vulnerable.

Jim Dean, the chairman of the progressive group Democracy for America, berated the Democrats who voted to advance fast-track.

"If Democrats fail to retake the Senate in 2016, a great deal of the responsibility will lie at the feet of the Democratic Senators who set fire to our party's credibility as champions for working people in the battle against growing income inequality by voting to advance Fast Track for the job-killing Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Dean said in a statement.

"They should know that hundreds of thousands of grassroots activists who have united behind Senators Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders to fight this job-killing trade deal are just getting started,” he continued, referring to the left-leaning members from Massachusetts, Ohio and Vermont, respectively.

Still, Bennet is unlikely to get a Democratic primary challenger, and while he’s running for reelection in a swing state that represents one of the GOP’s few chances to pick up a seat, he’s in good shape right now.

The former head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised more than $2 million in the first quarter, making him one of only four Senate candidates to do so. 

The 12 Democrats who backed cloture also drew the ire of labor, however, as the AFL-CIO blasted out a scathing critique of the trade deal along with a graphic that called the lawmakers "shameful" for voting to allow TPA to proceed. 
 
"Although the bill now seems poised for eventual Senate passage, we are hopeful that some amendments can be made to reduce the harm it will cause," Celeste Drake, a trade policy specialist at the labor union said. 
 
"We also look forward to consideration in the House, where this anti-worker legislation will have far less support."

The procedural vote clears the way for a final vote to give President Obama broad leeway to negotiate trade deals and submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote. It’s almost certain the bill will pass, granting Obama authority to finalize the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and bring it before Congress.

The trade deal has driven a deep wedge through the Democratic Party, and produced an unusual alliance temporarily uniting Obama and Senate Republican leaders against a group of liberal Democratic senators.  

The dynamics around the deal are also rippling through the Democratic presidential primary. Hillary Clinton hasn’t taken a side on the controversial deal, preferring to offer broad criteria that would need to be met in order for her to give her support.  

Sanders, her only declared rival, has been a vocal opponent of the trade treaty and has repeatedly criticized Clinton’s non-committal stance.

Warren, whose outspoken criticism of the TPP has placed her at the center of the fight with President Obama, also called on Clinton to offer a clearer stance during an interview this week with Bloomberg.

This story was updated at 3:24 p.m.