Greg Nash

Senate leaders struck a deal on Wednesday to revive President Obama’s suddenly beleaguered trade agenda.

The agreement comes a day after an embarrassing defeat and bad headlines for the White House that highlighted tensions between the president and liberal Democrats led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).

{mosads}Under the new agreement, senators will vote on two controversial bills favored by Democrats before moving to a wide-open debate on granting Obama fast-track authority to negotiate future trade deals.

Republicans said Democrats shifted their stance after getting pummeled by the press.

“They got throttled,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.), citing such headlines as “President rebuked,” “Democrats defy president” and “President thwarted.” 

“Those were the headlines this morning,” he said. “It’s a terrible place for them to be.

“I think they overplayed their hand here. They’ve come to that realization and so now they have to do their best to save face in this process,” he added.

The Senate will vote at noon Thursday on a stand-alone customs and enforcement bill that includes currency manipulation language and a stand-alone package of trade preferences for sub-Saharan Africa, according to a Senate aide. Both measures will require 60 votes to pass.

Democrats asked earlier this week for both proposals to be combined with fast-track, or trade promotion authority (TPA) as it’s also known, and Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program for helping displaced U.S. workers.

After the Senate votes on the customs and Africa measures, Democrats have agreed to begin debate on a combination of TPA and TAA. It would be subject to an open-amendment process, giving senators broad opportunity to vote on changes.

A vote to end a filibuster on the motion to proceed to the trade package is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday. The post-cloture debate time will be set to expire at 10 p.m. Votes on amendments to the base trade package are expected to begin on Tuesday.

The bipartisan accord has significantly increased the chances fast-track will pass in the Senate, but passage in the House is less certain.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the deal will allow “senators the opportunity to take votes on the customs and preference bill in a way that will not imperil the increased American exports and American trade jobs that we need.” 

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) had insisted earlier this week that all four bills be tied into a single package. He had the backing of his caucus, which voted to block the start of debate Tuesday.

But the political dynamic has shifted since Obama met with a group of pro-trade Democrats at the White House Tuesday afternoon. Media outlets have focused on the schism between the president and members of his party in Congress.

“Harry Reid demanded [Tuesday] that all four bills be tied into a single package. We’re not going to do that, we’re going to move to the package McConnell outlined on Monday, TPA and TAA,” a senior GOP aide said.

The contentious relationship between McConnell and Reid has been a major obstacle to Obama’s trade agenda.

Senators and their aides say feelings of distrust and irritation between the two leaders complicated what once appeared to be a smooth path for TPA after it passed out of the Finance Committee on a 20-6 vote.

McConnell has not missed a chance to tout what he calls the newly functional Senate, which he argues had been broken by years of Reid’s mismanagement as majority leader from 2007 through 2014. 

McConnell’s tone hasn’t sat well with Reid, who blames Republicans for grinding the chamber to a halt with repeated filibusters when Democrats were in control.

“It was really, really hard for four years to get things done,” he said on the Senate floor. “My friend, the majority leader, can talk all he wants about how much we’ve gotten done.

“The majority of stuff that we worked on, we could have done it before if the Republicans had not objected to it, stopped us from moving to those matters,” he said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has served for many years in the upper chamber with both party leaders, said Reid is still dealing with the results of the 2014 midterm elections.

“I think some of it is a failure of Harry Reid to adjust to minority status. Obviously he doesn’t want Mitch to succeed where he failed,” he said.

McCain, however, acknowledged that McConnell’s habit of touting his track record has rubbed salt in Reid’s wound.

“I can’t imagine that Harry loves to hear it,” he said.

“Republicans are weirdly preoccupied with the idea that Senator Reid still runs the Senate and I have no idea where that comes from,” said Adam Jentleson, Reid’s spokesman.

Jentleson said Reid’s cooperation this year has helped McConnell pass bills.

“Instead of reflexively opposing everything in order to grind the Senate to a halt as Republicans did, Democrats are considering issues on the merits and moving forward whenever we can find common ground,” he said.

A Democratic senator who requested anonymity said McConnell’s comments are goading to Reid and “not really true” because highway funding and a key section of the Patriot Act are about to expire.

Republicans say Tuesday’s blowup of the floor debate was more about Reid trying to show he still controls the Senate floor than about a substantive policy dispute.

Even Democrats acknowledge that Reid’s pugnacious style contributed to this week’s deadlock over trade. Some wonder if the party might have been better served if he weren’t so eager to take on McConnell.

“The need for Harry to have finesse and diplomacy in terms of losing his leverage is sometimes lost on him,” said the Democratic senator. “He is a frontal guy and for him to be as frontal as he’s been is like a red cape to a bull to Mitch McConnell, and that’s not how we make progress in finding a way to compromise.”

Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the only Democrat who voted Tuesday to move to the trade package, said the filibuster appeared somewhat fueled by emotion.

“Some people may have needed to get something out of their system,” he said. “Catharsis.”

Other Democrats countered that they forced McConnell to guarantee them votes on the customs enforcement bill and the Africa bill.

“The fact that we know we’re getting a vote on the enforcement before there’s a vote on TPA is what we wanted,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

A spokesman for McConnell said his boss’s relationship with Reid is not the issue.

“They have a business relationship,” said Don Stewart. “Personality has nothing to do with what we accomplish.”

Clearly, Reid’s opposition to the deal is not purely personal. He has never supported granting fast-track authority to the executive branch and his caucus includes many outspoken skeptics of free trade such as Warren and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

Indeed, Reid quashed Obama’s hopes of passing fast-track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the last Congress when he was Senate majority leader.

Updated at 8:33 p.m.

Tags Barack Obama fast-track Harry Reid John Thune Mitch McConnell TPA Trade
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