Senate Votes to Give Obama ‘Fast-Track’ Power and a Hard-Fought Win

Trade Promotion Authority passes after a combined lobbying effort by Republicans and the White House. But passage in the House may be even tougher.

President Barack Obama arrives to speak about trade policy at Nike Headquarters on May 8, 2015 in Beaverton, Oregon.
National Journal
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
May 22, 2015, 5:25 p.m.

The Re­pub­lic­an-led Sen­ate de­livered the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion the key to un­lock ma­jor trade agree­ments Fri­day night, after hours of con­ten­tious votes and weeks of old-fash­ioned deal-mak­ing that played out in full view on the cham­ber floor.

The “fast-track” bill passed 62-to-37, with 14 Demo­crats—largely mod­er­ates or those from coastal states—vot­ing in fa­vor and five Re­pub­lic­ans op­posed. The meas­ure would lim­it con­gres­sion­al de­bate on fu­ture trade-pact votes by block­ing amend­ments and re­quir­ing only a simple ma­jor­ity in both cham­bers. The bill will ease the pas­sage of trade ac­cords like the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, which en­deavors to cre­ate the world’s largest free-trade zone with 12 coun­tries and com­pris­ing 40 per­cent of the world’s gross do­mest­ic product.

The White House and Re­pub­lic­ans praised the bill as a way to lower bar­ri­ers and cre­ate ex­port-re­lated jobs, while foes com­plained that it would ease fu­ture pas­sage of un­fair trade bills by re­du­cing con­gres­sion­al lever­age.

“We all know that trade is im­port­ant for Amer­ic­an work­ers and Amer­ic­an jobs,” Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell said on the floor Fri­day. “And we all know that, by passing this le­gis­la­tion, we can show we’re ser­i­ous about ad­van­cing new op­por­tun­it­ies for big­ger Amer­ic­an paychecks, bet­ter Amer­ic­an jobs, and a stronger Amer­ic­an eco­nomy.”

The bill passed only after Mc­Con­nell agreed to the de­mands of sev­er­al sen­at­ors Thursday to al­low a fu­ture vote on reau­thor­iz­ing the Ex­port-Im­port Bank, which provides loan guar­an­tees to U.S. com­pan­ies selling their products abroad. Keep­ing the bank alive is a pri­or­ity for many busi­ness groups but it also has some strong foes, par­tic­u­larly among House con­ser­vat­ives who hope to see it die.

The fast-track meas­ure also pro­gressed without the at­tach­ment of an amend­ment on cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tion—sponsored by Sens. Rob Port­man and Debbie Stabenow—that was closely watched by both sides. Op­pon­ents of the amend­ment, which failed on a 48-to-51 vote, wor­ried that it would sink the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship if it were ad­ded to the fast-track meas­ure.

The vote was a ma­jor vic­tory for Pres­id­ent Obama, who per­son­ally lob­bied Demo­crats at the White House, on the phone, and in every oth­er ven­ue he could find. The ef­fort worked, though it also ex­acer­bated some in­tra­party ten­sions, par­tic­u­larly between Obama and Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren, a high-pro­file and out­spoken foe of both TPA and TPP.

War­ren re­peatedly made the ar­gu­ment that the fast-track meas­ure should not be ap­proved un­til the pub­lic is al­lowed to see the full text of the TPP deal. Oth­er­wise, voters won’t know what’s in the meas­ure un­til it’s too late. “That sounds like a lousy ar­range­ment,” she com­plained on the floor Thursday.

TPA’s pas­sage is also a win for big busi­ness, which has failed in the past few years on some of its biggest pri­or­it­ies, in­clud­ing com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form and a tax-code over­haul. The Busi­ness Roundtable, an as­so­ci­ation of CEO mem­bers, has worked for over a year and a half for this vic­tory, ac­cord­ing to Dav­id Thomas, the group’s vice pres­id­ent for trade policy. The group, which set up weekly meet­ing on Cap­it­ol Hill, sent let­ters of sup­port to every sen­at­or this week, and held a press con­fer­ence with Mc­Con­nell and oth­ers. “All year, we’ve seen more and more BRT CEOs and com­pan­ies step­ping up at all levels,” he said.

Labor groups and oth­er op­pon­ents will now re­double their ef­forts over in the House, where the bill faces tough­er op­pos­i­tion due to a band of con­ser­vat­ives with little trust in the pres­id­ent and Demo­crats who have con­cerns that the TPP could re­duce de­veloped coun­tries’ ac­cess to U.S. medi­cine and deep­en the U.S. trade de­fi­cit with Ja­pan, par­tic­u­larly in the auto­mobile mar­ket. They are also con­cerned about en­ter­ing in­to agree­ments where Amer­ic­an work­ers have to com­pete against coun­tries with much lower wages and looser en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions.

“Rest as­sured, the battle over TPP is far from over,” Marc Per­rone, pres­id­ent of the United Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers In­ter­na­tion­al Uni­on, said Fri­day night. “Pres­id­ent Obama and the sup­port­ers of fast-track and the TPP want us to be­lieve that this deal is worthy of our na­tion; it is not.”

In a sign that the White House is still try­ing to con­vince Demo­crats—par­tic­u­larly House Demo­crats—Obama is­sued a state­ment after Fri­day’s vote call­ing it “an im­port­ant step to­ward en­sur­ing the United States can ne­go­ti­ate and en­force strong, high-stand­ards trade agree­ments.”

The TPA bill fol­lows a few oth­er big-tick­et items the Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship can tout in its first six months in of­fice, in­clud­ing a sub­stan­tial Medi­care re­form bill. But oth­er dif­fi­cult is­sues and ex­pir­ing pro­grams await after the Me­mori­al Day re­cess.

This art­icle has been up­dated.

Sarah Mimms contributed to this article.
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