WASHINGTON, May 13, 2015 – Fast-track is temporarily on hold in the Senate. In a setback for President Obama, only one Democrat voted Tuesday to open debate on the trade bill that would set up the fast-track process for approving new trade agreements that the administration is negotiating. The motion needed 60 votes, but failed 52-45.
Supporters of the legislation, however, were expressing optimism afterwards that a deal could be worked out to get the necessary support to end the filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., moved for reconsideration of the bill (HR 1314) but didn’t immediately schedule a second vote.
“I think the president will get involved and votes will be changed and we’ll get 60 votes,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
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.” After the vote, Obama met with Wyden and nine other pro-trade Democrats to discuss the legislation, a Senate aide said. The White House said it was a “constructive session” and that the senators reiterated their support for the TPA bill.
Late last week, Democrats began demanding that Republicans move a separate Customs enforcement measure together with the fast-track, Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill and additional measures extending Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) programs and duty-free treatment for imports from developing countries.
Republicans said they had only pledged to move the TPA and TAA bills in tandem and that the enforcement measure contained a poison-pill currency manipulation provision that was likely to draw a presidential veto.
“There was never a plan to move all four of these bills together,” said Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “While we agreed that TPA and TAA would have to move on parallel tracks, there was no such agreement with regard to the other bills, only a commitment that we would do our best to try to get all four enacted into law.”
Ahead of the vote, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., demanded that Republicans wrap all four bills together. “Put all four bills on the floor in one package, OK, one package,” Reid told reporters. Pro-trade Democrats seemed less intent on having all four bills packaged together so long as they would all get votes.
A pro-trade Democrat who had supported the fast-track measure in the Senate Finance Committee, Maria Cantwell of Washington, told Agri-Pulse she didn’t support the currency language but needed assurance the enforcement bill would move. “We voted all four (bills) out of committee, so you’ve just to get a vote on all four of them. … We don’t want to wait two years to get customs enforcement done, do we? I don’t.”
The Senate Finance Committee’s ranking Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, had originally described his deal with Hatch and House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to require that the TPA and TAA bills move in tandem. He said Tuesday that he wanted to see “a clear path forward” for each of these four bills.
Opponents of the president’s trade agenda exulted that they had denied supporters the big Senate vote that could provide momentum for House passage. The only reason to vote on the bill in the Senate first “was to get a huge victory to build momentum in the House,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “But that strategy backfired and Democrats in the House remain committed to standing up for their beliefs that the trade package would do a lot more harm than good.”
But Bruce Josten, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s executive vice president for legislative affairs, said TPA still enjoys “significant bipartisan support.” “Legislating is never simple, and there are often stumbles in the course of enacting major legislation,” he said.
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