Senate Dems Block Key Obama Trade Initiative

Senate Dems Block Key Obama Trade Initiative
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Senate Democrats voted against opening debate on fast-track trade authority for the president Tuesday, at least temporarily stalling a key initiative of President Obama’s that has strong support among Republicans but is divisive within his own party.

The vote failed 52-45, with only one Democrat, Tom Carper of Delaware, siding with Republicans to open debate on the legislation, called Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was the only Republican to vote against ending the filibuster, though he supports TPA and cast his vote for procedural reasons so he can bring the bill up again.

Senate Democrats are not unanimously opposed to TPA, a rule that would allow the president to submit potential trade agreements to Congress for an up-or-down vote -- and therefore without the ability to amend them. A number of Democrats, including Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden, support TPA and would vote for the legislation despite strong opposition from some of the more visible members of the party in the upper chamber, including Minority Leader Harry Reid and Elizabeth Warren.

But Wyden and fellow pro-trade Democrats stuck with leadership for Tuesday’s cloture vote because of procedural disagreements over whether to consider several other trade bills at the same time. Wyden insisted that they are still “thoroughly committed to getting this bill passed.”

Last month, four measures passed the Finance Committee by a 20-6 vote: TPA; trade adjustment assistance, which is meant to protect workers who might lose jobs because of trade agreements; a customs enforcement bill that includes language on currency manipulation, which is a Democratic priority; and a bill on trade preferences with Africa.

Democrats insist that all four must come to the Senate floor to be voted on, while Republicans want only TPA and trade adjustment assistance packaged together – which itself is a compromise, as most Republicans don’t support the latter.

Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, who negotiated the trade agreement with Wyden, insisted that there was no agreement within the committee to package the four pieces.

“I was flabbergasted,” Hatch said on the Senate floor after the vote. “To have our colleagues vote against cloture on a bill that their president wants more than any other bill, after he talked to all of them, is astounding to me.”

Republican John Thune said Democrats were “throwing their own president under the bus” by blocking the legislation.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest described the cloture vote as a “procedural snafu” during his daily briefing with reporters.

“It's going to be incumbent upon Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to work together to figure out how to overcome this procedural snafu and advance legislation that, as we saw in the Finance Committee, has clear bipartisan support in the Senate,” Earnest said. “We're going to continue to remain engaged and have conversations with members of the Senate as they do exactly that. But ultimately, this will be the responsibility of members of the Senate to work through.”

At this point, the path to work through the legislation remains unclear, particularly because getting trade authority passed by the Senate was seen as easier than passage in the House of Representatives. McConnell voted against cloture to give himself the option to bring the bill back up, but Democrats insist that they will continue to block it unless all four provisions are included.

“It’s up to McConnell,” said Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, an opponent of TPA. “If McConnell thinks it’s killed, it’s killed. If McConnell wants to kill it, it’s killed. If McConnell wants to bring it back with all four provisions, it would be on the floor today and we’d be debating it now and the amendment process would begin.”

The majority leader, speaking on the Senate floor immediately after the vote, said he was hopeful that Democrats would heed Obama’s stance and allow debate on the bills to move forward. Hatch, however, speaking before the vote took place, told reporters that if Democrats didn’t break the filibuster Tuesday, “that’s probably the end of it.”

Asked what happens next if the vote failed, Hatch said that was up to leadership, “but if it were me, I’d pull the bill. And I’d let them know that if they want to play these games at the last minute when we’ve had agreements to do it the right way, they’ll have to live with what they did.”

Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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