Obama, McConnell Get Key Win on Trade
In a dramatic vote full of last-minute deals and high tension, the Senate narrowly agreed to move forward Thursday on trade legislation that is a key priority of President Obama and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The chamber voted, 62-38, to end debate on Trade Promotion Authority, which would allow Obama to submit trade deals to Congress for an up-or-down vote without the ability to add amendments. The TPA legislation is considered a key step for Obama in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a trade agreement between the U.S. and nearly a dozen other nations. Until Thursday, the fate of TPA in the Senate was uncertain.
A dozen Democrats joined the vast majority of Republicans in supporting the measure, with five Republicans voting against it. The vote is a reversal from last week, where Democrats banded together to block the legislation over frustrations with the amendment process.
“I'm very happy the Senate has decided to take another step forward on this very important initiative, not only of the president but of the majority party as well,” McConnell said on the Senate floor following the vote. “I thank the folks on the other side who are also similarly inclined.”
McConnell singled out Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat, who crafted the legislation and have worked closely to move it forward. Wyden indicated after the vote that they were still negotiating and trying to work out an agreement to vote on a number of amendments to the bill.
“There is now a bipartisan coalition, pro-trade coalition, that’s come together in the United States Senate,” Wyden said. “Now what I’ve got to do, and what I’m working on now, is trying to get as many amendments as possible. That’s what we’ve sought from the very beginning and that’s what I’m focused on now.”
Even during the vote, it was unclear if the trade legislation would clear this key procedural hurdle. Some Democrats, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell, wanted assurances that there would be a vote to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, set to expire at the end of June, before they would allow the trade bill to advance. After a long huddle on the Senate floor during the vote, while the bill was still several yeas short of passing, a large group of senators worked through those concerns. Ultimately, an agreement was reached.
Multiple lawmakers said McConnell assured Cantwell that there would be a vote on the Export-Import Bank sometime in June, and she voted yes on the cloture motion.
“I feel strongly that we should not proceed without Ex-Im having a path toward survival, toward reauthorization,” Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said. “And it’s important to me that Senator Cantwell and the other senators who have been fighting hard for Ex-Im feel confident there is an appropriate path forward. With her being reassured on it, I was comfortable moving forward.”
There were no such assurances that the bank would receive a vote in the House, however. Speaker John Boehner said in his weekly news conference that Cantwell asked him to guarantee a vote on it, and he said he “would not make that commitment.”
Some Democrats, including Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who both voted against ending debate on the legislation, reiterated their frustrations with not being able to get votes on amendments. Cardin said he wanted a vote on his amendment related to nations that violate human rights, and Brown has been leading the push for a much broader amendment process.
“They had to keep the roll call open and cut deals to win, and I reiterate that people are clearly unhappy with trade policy in this Congress and reflecting the deep unhappiness in the country with trade agreements where they make big promises of more jobs and higher wages and the results are lost jobs and stagnant wages.”
With the cloture vote now behind them, senators must reach an agreement over amendments, with a vote on the final passage of the TPA legislation expected sometime Friday. Its fate in the House, however, which is likely to consider trade sometime next month, is much less certain.