Senate Democrats Are Revolting Against Obama’s Trade Plan

Republicans are warning that the president’s trade package could unravel with minimal Democratic support.

President Obama speaks during an event to recognize emerging global entrepreneurs May 11, 2015 at the South Court Auditorium of Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
May 11, 2015, 4:50 p.m.

Sen­ate Demo­crats are in full re­volt against the pres­id­ent and his trade agenda, jeop­ard­iz­ing a leg­acy-de­fin­ing pact strength­en­ing the eco­nom­ic ties of the United States and 11 coun­tries around the Pa­cific Rim.

Some seni­or Re­pub­lic­ans already are point­ing fin­gers at Demo­crats for op­pos­ing a pre­lim­in­ary vote simply to move on to the bill. When asked if he had con­fid­ence that the Sen­ate would get the re­quis­ite 60 votes Tues­day to ad­vance, Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Or­rin Hatch, a prin­cip­al ne­go­ti­at­or and ad­voc­ate for the trade pack­age, said, “No.”

“Not without Demo­crat­ic sup­port,” he ad­ded. “We don’t know. There’s been some in­dic­a­tion that they’re all go­ing to vote against. If they do, only God knows what’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

Re­pub­lic­ans claim that a late-break­ing de­mand by Demo­crats to con­sider four trade bills in one pack­age has thrown Tues­day’s out­come in­to doubt. There are two bills that Re­pub­lic­ans are of­fer­ing to move to­geth­er. One is the “fast-track” le­gis­la­tion that would in­crease the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s lever­age in trade ne­go­ti­ations by lim­it­ing con­gres­sion­al de­bate to an up-or-down vote without amend­ments. The oth­er is a sweeten­er primar­ily for Demo­crats, a trade-ad­just­ment-as­sist­ance bill to help those who lose their jobs as a res­ult of ex­pan­ded trade. Re­pub­lic­ans say it was agreed those would move sim­ul­tan­eously in the Fin­ance Com­mit­tee.

(RE­LATED: The Five Flash Points of the Long-Sim­mer­ing Obama-War­ren Feud)

But Re­pub­lic­ans claim that two oth­er bills—a cus­toms-en­force­ment bill and an­oth­er de­signed to strengthen trade agree­ments with de­vel­op­ing coun­tries—were not sup­posed to be in­cluded in one pack­age. Re­pub­lic­ans now are will­ing only to take those ad­di­tion­al bills up in some oth­er man­ner.

Both Demo­crats who op­pose the fast-track bill—such as Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id—and oth­ers who might sup­port it—in­clud­ing Ben Cardin of Mary­land, Di­anne Fein­stein of Cali­for­nia, and Chris­toph­er Coons of Delaware—have said in the past week that they want the four bills to­geth­er. Sen. Ron Wyden of Ore­gon, Hatch’s Demo­crat­ic coun­ter­part, wants a “guar­an­tee” that all four bills will be­come law, ac­cord­ing to an aide.

And Demo­crat­ic Sen. Tim Kaine of Vir­gin­ia, a po­ten­tial yes vote on the bill, said he is “still un­clear” about wheth­er or not he’ll vote to pro­ceed to the bill.

“We have got to have a plan to get the four bills passed,” Kaine said. “I want to see what that plan is to get them passed. Be­cause they all came out, they have all been bi­par­tis­an, they are all im­port­ant.”

(RE­LATED: Greens Turn Against Long­time Ally Earl Blumenauer Over Trade Deal)

The ma­jor­ity of Demo­crats will not vote for any fast-track bill, also known as Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity or TPA, no mat­ter what. They dis­count the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s claim that the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, a ma­jor po­ten­tial trade agree­ment af­fect­ing 40 per­cent of the world’s eco­nomy, would be the “most pro­gress­ive trade agree­ment in his­tory” be­cause of labor and en­vir­on­ment­al con­cerns, and they are con­cerned that fast-track would lim­it their abil­ity to im­pact the deal.

Sen. An­gus King of Maine, an in­de­pend­ent who caucuses with Demo­crats, said he would “prob­ably” vote no be­cause he op­poses TPA, which would pave the way for TPP.

“I’ve been to plant clos­ings,” King said. “Work­ers re­fused to shake my hand be­cause they said, ‘Why should I shake the hand of some­body that let them ship my jobs over­seas?’ That’s a form­at­ive ex­per­i­ence.”

But even though Demo­crats have his­tor­ic­ally op­posed free trade agree­ments, it’s still shock­ing that Pres­id­ent Obama may not be able to get enough of them to vote just to get to a bill on which he has spent so much polit­ic­al cap­it­al.

Obama has em­phas­ized trade from this year’s State of the Uni­on ad­dress to Fri­day’s stop at the Nike headquar­ters in Ore­gon. He’s cornered sopho­more Demo­crat­ic rep­res­ent­at­ives, showered them with flights on Air Force One, and prom­ised to cam­paign for them, ac­cord­ing to The New York Times. The U.S. Trade Rep­res­ent­at­ive claims to have held nearly 1,700 con­gres­sion­al brief­ings on TPP over the past five years, and even set up an of­fice in the Cap­it­ol Vis­it­or Cen­ter where mem­bers and staff can read the draft lan­guage of the agree­ments. And yet it still might not be enough.

“We’ll see wheth­er he can pro­duce them,” said Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Whip John Cornyn of the pres­id­ent’s abil­ity to garner the votes of his fel­low Demo­crats. “We’re not go­ing to rene­go­ti­ate how this is go­ing to be taken up. They’ll have a chance to have a vote to get on the un­der­ly­ing bill that will then pro­duce a ne­go­ti­ation on the over­all le­gis­la­tion. But it’s go­ing to be up to the pres­id­ent and the Demo­crats to pro­duce the votes to get us on it.”

Ben Geman contributed to this article.
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