Obama’s Fast-Track Bill Inches Another Step Forward

Trade Promotion Authority clears the Senate’s vital 60-vote threshold.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) speaks to members of the press as he is on his way for a vote January 6, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Janet Yellen was confirmed by the Senate with a vote of 56 - 26 to become the first woman to head the Federal Reserve Board.
National Journal
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
June 23, 2015, 8:17 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama is one step closer to seal­ing the most im­port­ant trade pact in dec­ades after the Sen­ate nar­rowly voted Tues­day to ad­vance the so-called “fast-track” bill.

The move is a prom­ising sign for the ad­min­is­tra­tion, which has suffered two de­feats in the past few weeks at the hands of its Demo­crat­ic col­leagues in the House and Sen­ate des­pite the most ag­gress­ive lob­by­ing ef­fort since the Obama­care de­bate. The ad­min­is­tra­tion has labeled Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity one of its highest pri­or­it­ies.

With the ab­sence of Sen. Bob Cork­er and Sen. Ted Cruz switch­ing his vote, the bill cleared a pro­ced­ur­al hurdle with the bare min­im­um 60 votes. As Nevada Sen. Dean Heller walked onto the floor to cast his vote, his col­league, Sen. John Bar­rasso, called him, “Mr. 60!”

The bill would set up a frame­work for Con­gress to re­ject or rat­i­fy, but not change, trade deals for the next six years. The cur­rent and pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions have ar­gued that TPA is ne­ces­sary to ne­go­ti­ate and seal deals, as po­ten­tial part­ners are wary of con­gres­sion­al in­ter­fer­ence. The TPA bill is ex­pec­ted to pass Wed­nes­day and a re­lated meas­ure provid­ing sup­port to work­ers dis­placed by such pacts, Trade Ad­just­ment As­sist­ance, is likely to get a vote Thursday.

“We have demon­strated we can work to­geth­er on a bi­par­tis­an basis to achieve something that is ex­tremely im­port­ant for Amer­ica,” said Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell on the cham­ber floor be­fore the vote. “Not only when we con­firm this Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity will we have the mech­an­ism in place for the pres­id­ent to fi­nal­ize an ex­traordin­ar­ily im­port­ant deal with a num­ber of dif­fer­ent Asi­an coun­tries, but it will in­dic­ate that Amer­ica is back in the trade busi­ness. It will also send a mes­sage to our al­lies that we un­der­stand they’re some­what wary about Chinese com­mer­cial and po­ten­tially mil­it­ary dom­in­a­tion and that we in­tend to still be deeply in­volved in the Pa­cific.”

But the trade de­bate isn’t over yet. Demo­crats in both cham­bers are sus­pi­cious of Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers and wheth­er they will de­liv­er on their as­sur­ances to hold a vote on TAA. Sen. Tim Kaine, who voted for the meas­ure Tues­day, said he would vote against the up­com­ing Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship deal, the most sig­ni­fic­ant trade deal since NAF­TA, un­less that as­sist­ance is passed.

“We still need vig­or­ous en­force­ment in TAA,” said Kaine. “For my sake, I got as­sur­ances I need that made me feel com­fort­able vot­ing today. But I’ve got a back­stop, which is if those as­sur­ances are not met, then I will vote against the treaty when it even­tu­ally hits the table. I’m not go­ing to vote for TPP when there is no pro­gram to re­train work­ers who are af­fected by trade.”

House Speak­er John Boehner is­sued a state­ment Tues­day morn­ing aimed at ad­dress­ing those con­cerns.

“We re­main com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that both TPA and TAA are passed and en­acted in­to law,” Boehner said. “The House has passed TPA as a stand-alone meas­ure. The House will con­sider TAA once it passes the Sen­ate as part of a new trade-pref­er­ences bill. And we are ready to go to con­fer­ence on the cus­toms bill. Our goal is to get TPA and TAA to the pres­id­ent’s desk this week and de­liv­er this win for the Amer­ic­an people.”

The de­bate over free trade has split the Demo­crat­ic Party for dec­ades. Obama has had to pres­sure around two dozen House Demo­crats and around a dozen Sen­ate Demo­crats for months to try and get this done. Still, many of their con­gres­sion­al lead­ers have op­posed the deal on ideo­lo­gic­al grounds, ar­guing that the deal will ex­acer­bate in­come in­equal­ity and hurt Amer­ic­an jobs.

“My col­leagues who sup­port this le­gis­la­tion are act­ing in good faith based on what they be­lieve is right,” said Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic Lead­er Harry Re­id in a state­ment. “I simply dis­agree with them. Every day in this cham­ber, we make a choice about wheth­er we will serve large busi­ness in­terests or Amer­ica’s middle class. Today, I be­lieve we made the wrong choice.”

Asked by a re­port­er Tues­day what was next for the trade pack­age, Re­id said: “I am the wrong per­son to talk to. I hate the whole pro­gram. So, talk to some­body that likes it. I hate it.”

This art­icle has been up­dated.

Ben Geman contributed to this article.
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