WASHINGTON, March 12, 2015 – Senate Democrats at least temporarily sidelined President Obama’s trade agenda, blocking advancement of a bill to provide a fast-track approval process for trade agreements.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., demanded that Republicans package the fast-track bill with three other trade measures, including a Customs enforcement bill that includes a currency manipulation provision opposed by the White House.Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., accused Democrats of reneging on earlier commitments to move the fast-track bill only in tandem with a second measure extending Trade Adjustment Assistance programs.
McConnell expressed optimism that the Senate would reconsider and move the fast-track legislation "some time soon." The bill would set negotiating guidelines for trade deals and ensure that the deals get an up-or-down vote in Congress without risk of amendments.
Seven Democrats supported the fast-track bill in the Senate Finance Committee, but only one Democrat, Tom Carper of Delaware, voted Tuesday to advance the legislation.
The 52-45 vote on a motion to proceed on the trade bill was eight votes short of the 60 necessary. McConnell was the lone Republican to vote against the motion, and that was so that he could make a motion to bring it back.
“Everybody should take a deep breath,” Reid said after the vote. “I think there are ways we can move forward on this without disparaging either side. … We cannot be debating the merits of this legislation unless we figure out a way of moving forward."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the vote a “procedural snafu.”
“These are procedural challenges that members of the Senate will have to work through,” Earnest said. “And the president of the United States and members of his staff will continue to remain engaged in having conversations with members of the Senate - both Democrats and Republicans - about the substance of this proposal.”
Fourteen pro-trade Democrats, including the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden, met a couple of hours before the vote, and all but Carper agreed to voted against the GOP motion.
Their demands were not entirely clear. Before the vote, a spokesman for Wyden said the Democrats would vote against moving the fast-track bill "if there's not a guarantee that all four bills can become law.” Then, shortly before the vote, Reid told reporters that all four bills had to be in one package.
After the vote, Wyden said Democrats wanted a “clear path forward for each of the four bills.”
The fourth bill, which is not controversial, would extend duty-free treatment for imports from developing countries.
Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told reporters the Democratic demands were unreasonable because there was no way to guarantee passage of the enforcement bill. The currency provision in the enforcement bill is a poison pill, he said.
Passing the legislation was expected to be even tougher in the House. “I hope my Democratic colleagues who support trade will reconsider their approach and allow the Senate to act,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “With so much at stake, we must continue to move ahead."