Senate approves Obama trade bill, sending fast-track to House

Greg Nash

The Senate voted Friday to approve a trade package granting President Obama fast-track negotiating authority, giving him a major second-term legislative victory.

It’s also a big win for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who said last month that passing trade legislation would likely be the biggest accomplishment of the 114th Congress.

{mosads}Senators voted 62 to 37 to pass trade legislation, setting up a bruising fight next month in the House, where lawmakers are more populist on both sides of the aisle.

Fast-track, also known as trade promotion authority, empowers Obama and future presidents to negotiate trade deals that cannot be changed by Congress. Those deals can win Senate approval with simple-majority votes instead of having to clear the 60-vote hurdle usually required of controversial legislation.

The legislation grants expedited review of trade agreements for up to six years.

It paves the way for swift passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the administration is negotiating with 11 other countries.

Once the Senate votes on final passage, Obama’s trade agenda heads to the House where it faces a steeper climb.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who led the opposition of liberal Democrats in the upper chamber, has already met Democratic House allies such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Mass.) to build a roadblock.

Fast-track has moved in fits and starts over the past two weeks as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other pro-labor Democrats devised various obstacles to slow its momentum.

Their goal was to delay Senate passage until after the Memorial Day recess to give outside labor, environmental and liberal advocacy groups more time to wage a grassroots campaign to turn public opinion.

McConnell made clear from the start of the debate that he did want that to happen. He used the looming expiration of Section 215 of the Patriot Act and the Highway Trust Fund as a backstop to ensure Senate action by stacking votes to extend both programs after the trade bill.

The debate laid bare the stark differences within the Democratic Party over free trade.

Shortly before the vote, Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the main Democratic co-author of fast-track, said the legislation would set a higher standard for trade deals.

“At the end of the day, colleagues, we’ve always known that one of the paths to more good-paying jobs in our country is exports,” he said.

But his home-state colleague, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) panned it for failing to include adequate wage safeguards.

“What we’ve seen in the wake of NAFTA and the free trade agreements that have followed is not only a tremendous loss of jobs but a tremendous increase in inequality in this nation,” he said.

The bills managers, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Wyden, the senior Democrat on the Finance panel, beat back several amendments that could have jeopardized its chances in the House or drawn a presidential veto.

The toughest vote came on an amendment sponsored by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to require that future trade agreements include enforceable provisions to dissuade currency manipulation by foreign partners. It failed by 48 to 51.

Instead, the Senate adopted an alternative authored by Hatch and Wyden. It directs the administration to hold trading partners accountable for currency manipulation and to use various tools such as reporting, monitoring and cooperative mechanisms.

Portman criticized it for lacking “teeth.”

Obama and McConnell teamed up to defeat the Portman-Stabenow proposal. Senators and aides said Obama worked the phone to pry support away from the amendment. McConnell told reporters at the start of the week he would whip against it and any other amendments he claimed would “tank the bill.”

Sen. John Tester (Mont.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he received a call from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew Thursday night urging him to oppose Portman-Stabenow.

Ziad Ojakli, vice president of government relations at Ford, which strongly supported the currency provision, vowed “to work with lawmakers to address this critical issue as TPA moves through the legislative process.”

Hatch, Wyden and McConnell also defeated an amendment sponsored by Warren that would bar corporations from using neutral arbitration process to settle disputes with foreign governments. Warren argued the so-called Investor State Dispute Settlement process would unfairly shield corporations from local laws.

“A provision to give corporations special rights to challenge our laws outside of our legal system should not be part of our free trade agreement,” she said before the vote.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), another leader of the Democratic caucus’s “fair-trade” wing, lost a vote on his amendment to require prior congressional approval of negotiations to expand the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“Before President Obama or President Hillary Clinton or President Lindsey Graham decides that China should be admitted to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, this amendment assures Congress plays a role,” he said.

The trade package nearly derailed on Thursday because of a dispute over whether to link it to reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, a top priority of two key pro-trade Democrats, Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

Cantwell initially demanded that McConnell guarantee Senate and House passage of legislation reauthorizing the bank in exchange for her support of fast-track.

At one point during a pivotal vote Thursday to end debate on the Hatch-Wyden substitute amendment, which contained the meat of the trade package, McConnell appeared in trouble after five Republicans defected.

He swung Murray and Cantwell, and several other pro-trade Democrats as well as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to yes by promising them a vote next month on an amendment reauthorizing the bank. Its charter expires on June 30.

Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Cantwell, Ben Cardin (Md.), Tom Carper (Del.), Chris Coons (Del.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Tim Kaine (Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Murray, Bill Nelson (Fla.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Mark Warner (Va.) and Wyden voted yes.

Cardin was the only senator to switch his vote between cloture and final passage.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and Richard Shelby (Ala.) voted no. 

This story was updated at 9:22 p.m. 



Tags Barack Obama Elizabeth Warren fast-track Harry Reid Mitch McConnell Orrin Hatch Ron Wyden Sherrod Brown Trade

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